Spotlight on Secondary Characters

Headlights at night-790596

Photo originally used for “No Sleep Tonight

Writers often talk about how their characters will develop minds of their own, how they’ll do things the author never would have expected when they first started writing them. I think this phenomenon is wonderful but I’m not sure it’s quite happened to me in the way many writers describe. It’s a side-effect of knowing your characters really well–something that is critically important if you want other people (i.e. readers) to see your characters as real people and not as cardboard Flat Stanleys on the page.

I have recently been working on some stories related to Southern Summer Night. I probably know more about Beau (the protagonist) than I do about a lot of my other characters. One of the newer stories was for class and and one element of the feedback I received was surprising–everyone wanted to know more about Beau’s relationship with his father; they didn’t have the benefit of all the information in my head about that particular S.O.B.

At the end of my master’s program, I have to present a thesis. So, sometime before that, I have to write said thesis. I originally thought I’d do a novel—I always wrote more novel-length stories than short stories–but that’s looking less likely. Short story collections are another option. However, if you know anything about short story collections, they’re like a fashion runway collection. Everything has to fit together somehow, it has to be cohesive. It has to have a theme. There’s another kind of short story collection where the stories are linked. Whether by place (Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is one well known example) or character (Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout — there is some argument over whether this is a novel or short story collection, but for the sake of argument…work with me), the stories have a link that’s more solid than a common theme.

I started thinking about perhaps writing linked stories about Beau and his hometown and his family. The obvious first choice was Beau’s father, Mason. Everyone wanted to know why Beau hated him so much–and was there more to Mason than just being an abusive, alcoholic caricature? I started writing about Mason after figuring out what could have happened in his life–what disappointment, what slings and arrows (as it were) drove him to be the miserable, foul person he is in Beau’s life. The funny thing is, knowing as I do where he ends, I feel bad for the guy as I write about his younger days. I wonder if there was anything he could have done to change his fate. And then I realize while technically he has no choice because I am his Creator (insert maniacal laughter), it is his choices that turn him into the “monster” he becomes–and that’s his real downfall. That he chose poorly again and again.

What about you? Do you ever write about secondary or side-line characters and learn new things about them AND about your main character? Do you know or write the “back story” for characters–even if it isn’t included in your stories? Do you ever feel like you’re torturing your poor characters and should cut them a break?


13 thoughts on “Spotlight on Secondary Characters

  1. There are times I make a dossier for characters. It helps me reference back to their strengths and personalities better (at least for me it does). And I never let up on my characters. Their struggles make it easy to test their character.

  2. I always admired the cohesion that deLint manages with his Newford works. He gives you a place with a life of its own, a host of characters that are relatable in different ways, with stories that touch, without necessarily overlapping – worth checking out.

    I do a lot of “expanded universe” writing, imagining, note-taking, whatever. I think it’s a great exercise even if you don’t intend to publish it. It rounds out the collection of nonsense your inheritors will find when you eventually shuffle off, right?

    Since I travel a lot, I keep tons of notes in Evernote, which makes it all searchable and easy to find when the time is right for mining gold. 😉

    • I’m not familiar with deLint–I’ll have to check him out.

      I agree–one of my professors recommended writing outside the story and I never realized why I didn’t think of that sometime over the writing process. And very true–it all goes into the archive when you become ridiculously famous!

      Evernote is really useful! I’ve found Yarny to be handy, too–it doesn’t have all the facets of Evernote but you can access it online. Google Drive works well, too.

  3. When I write about my characters, I do learn about them along the way. Their backstory tends to develop naturally as I do so. But, I pay less attention to the backstory of secondary characters than main characters.

    If there are situations in which my characters want to do something not in my plan, I think it through and see if it is wise if they follow their ‘heart’. I don’t want to create a character that bends to my will and acts ‘out of character’, if you know what I mean.

    • I think learning about your characters as you write is the most natural way, certainly. My secondary characters I think are often really just masquerading as secondary characters until I start paying attention to them, and then they become more interesting and important than I often first planned.

      I think letting your characters “follow their hearts” as you said is always interesting to pursue–I think a lot of times I try to keep characters acting a certain way when they’ve moved past that.

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