The following article was posted by NurtureYourBooks.com on November 17, 2017, as part of their November Celebration of Authors, Readers & Books. It is a pleasure to participate in the NYB BLOG HOP this month (I hope you’ve entered to win some of the many prizes on all the blog sites featured). It is my honor to be today’s Guest Author and to share with you the article posted by #NYB.
NO CHARACTER IS AN ISLAND.
Develop Unforgettable Supporting Characters.
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.”
Those lines are from a meditation written by poet John Donne in 1674, before movies, television, radio, or even novels were invented. Donne was referring to universal truths about mankind, but his words are relevant to you, today, as you write your story, novel, or script.
Why do you, a modern author, care what some Englishman wrote 350 years ago when, in fact, said Englishman had never read a novel, watch TV, or seen a movie? You care because you want your readers to love and remember more than just your story’s protagonist. Your leading characters exist in a world, not in a vacuum. The people surrounding them are not cardboard cutouts, they have many dimensions. It would be a mistake to spend time creating memorable, fully-fleshed leading characters and then place them in a world of “expendable crewmen” or bit-part clones.
This is easier to do than you may think. First, you already know how to build a great character; you’ve done it with your protagonist, and probably with your antagonist.
You know a lot about the main character before you start writing his/her story, and you have an idea how s/he will react when in conflict. Whether you write all of this down somewhere or just keep it in your head, you know the characters well and can see and hear them in your mind. If you couldn’t, you could never tell their story.
Second, since you already know how to build your main characters, you already have the ability to build supporting characters with just as much meat on their bones and just as many attitudes, ideas, motivations, and emotions in their hearts.
The good news is: you don’t have to spend as much time generating these background characters as you did on the main character(s). Just pay attention to the environment in which you place your protagonist. Calm your mind, slow down a moment, put yourself in the scene, and look around.
Who is there? How would they interact with your protagonist? What work can they do for you to move the plot forward? (If the scene does not move the plot forward, it has no place in your book. Every scene contributes something, and so does every character.)
For example, the protagonist is a John Doe patient in a hospital. He will need to interact with hospital staff or other patients. (You get to choose because you, All Powerful One, are the writer!)
You need to establish that the John Doe is an artist, because his artwork features heavily later in your plot. So you set up a conflict between John Doe and a hospital orderly.
You picture the orderly in your head. No role is too small to make a lasting impression on your readers. You want them to love, hate, laugh, or be angry, even at this minor character.
You name your orderly Hector Lopez (even if you never use his name in the story), and you see he’s short, wide, swarthy, lives at home, and flirts with anything in skirts. Instinctively, you already know all this about Hector, but you didn’t realize it until you stopped to visualize him clearly.
Now you have your protagonist, John Doe, about whom you already know a lot, and you have your supporting character, Hector, whom you clearly see and know in your mind. At this point, you still haven’t written anything down. Now you put these two characters into a conflict and watch what happens.
Establish the reason for the scene in your mind: to show readers that John Doe is an artist. Now give Hector a goal in the scene: to deliver lunch to this John Doe patient.
Set up the obstacle to the goal (the conflict): John Doe refuses the lunch and, in fact, throws it all over Hector. You picture Hector’s reaction easily because you know Hector. He cares about his looks (he thinks himself a ladies’ man; his mother still washes and irons his hospital uniforms; he spends time on his hair).
As the scene unfolds in your mind’s eye, you are now writing (or typing) as fast as you can, as if you are watching a movie and getting it all on paper. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation, or syntax in the first draft of the scene. Just watch the characters interact and get it all in writing. You can make it brilliant later; this is just the foundation for the finished scene.
Here’s one way Hector’s scene might play out. In this version, a doctor enters the room just as Hector is wiping today’s lunch off his face.
Excerpt from Duby’s Doctor, by Iris Chacon, chapter three:
Dr. Mitchell Oberon entered John Doe’s room on her daily rounds and found Hector, in a catcher’s mask, once again wearing the patient’s meal – chicken à la king this time. The fastidious Mitchell hated a mess, and she picked her way across a floor covered with food and dishware, gesturing to Hector to clean it up.
“You know, Johnny,” she said, “you have to start eating, so we can cut loose these IVs and get you more mobile.”
Quicker than a mongoose, John lunged for Mitchell, took a stranglehold on both her lapels with one mighty hand and with the other whipped Mitchell’s pen from her pocket. He began drawing frantically on Mitchell’s white lab coat.
Hector, though muscular, was no match for the larger man on the bed. Rather than rush to the doctor’s defense, he yelled, “I’ll get security!”
“No, wait!” called Mitchell. “Wait. Look. C’mere and look. What is it?”
Hector moved very carefully to a place where he could see Jean’s art taking shape. “It looks like – Oh, gross, man! It’s a chicken – with its head cut off! I knew it, man! This dude is one of them Haitian voodoo priests or a Santeria or something!”
John drew a huge “X” through the chicken with a flourish, made eye contact with Mitchell (whose undivided attention he definitely had), and began drawing again.
Because of his hold on her lapels, Mitchell could not look down at her coat to see what he was drawing. She looked to Hector. “Okay. Okay, what’s this now? Can you see it? What is it?”
“Your big old bicep’s in the way, man. Move your freakin’ arm, Hercules,” said Hector.
Mitchell choked out, “Hector! I’m expiring here! Quit foolin’ around. What is it? Hurry!”
“Madre de Dios,” said Hector.
“What! What is it?”
John released Mitchell’s lab coat and subsided onto the bed. He used his hands to adjust his injured leg, grimacing with pain, and leaned back into his pillow with a tired sigh.
Mitchell finally got a look at the finished work. Then she and Hector said the same word – but with different inflections: “Vegetables!”
“That’s the answer, Hector. Our bloodthirsty savage is a vegetarian. Get me an apple or something.”
When Hector didn’t move, she added, “Now, before he throttles me again!”
Hector ran to the food cart in the hallway and came back with a large apple. He threw it. John caught and ate it like a starving jackal.
“Madre de Dios,” said Hector.
End of excerpt.
Now go back and be sure the scene has done everything you needed it to do. You’ve shown that John can draw, and you’ve given us the ridiculous picture of the hospital orderly wearing a catcher’s mask to keep tossed food out of his face.
In addition, you’ve showed us how emotional Hector is and how calm the doctor can be in the midst of this conflict. Hopefully, you’ve made someone smile or laugh, which makes the scene more memorable.
Your readers’ knowledge of your protagonist, John Doe, has been enhanced as they visualize John’s size and strength. You’ve also shown that John can be a man of action, and that he can remain gentle (at least with innocent bystanders) while still making his point.
We’ve now established that (1) you know how to create a main character, and (2) that makes it easy for you to develop supporting characters.
The secret with supporting characters is to stop and take a little time to look closely at the character in your mind and learn all you can about them before putting them in the scene.
Tricks for knowing your supporting character:
- Visualize them (gender, body shape, ethnicity) then keep looking until you can “see” various details about that person.
- What kind of hat are they wearing? Is it unexpected, counter to a stereotype? Good. Why do they wear it?
(You may or may not use any of this information when you construct your scene, but you’ll certainly have a more interesting and entertaining scene if you, the writer, are aware of your character’s peculiarities.)
- Do they drive a car? Ride a bike? Enjoy the unicycle? Love their horse? What is their personal preferred mode of transportation? Could you set your scene on a bus or train or airplane because of this?
- What is your character’s first instinct when in conflict? Fear? Boldness? Avoidance? Violence? Verbal abuse? Negotiation?
You already know this, because you saw it when you visualized the character back in step 1. You don’t need to struggle to create this information, you just need to be still and realize that you already know it!
So, you can create a great main character, and you can quickly envision a fascinating, multi-faceted supporting character. Now the question becomes, is the character necessary?
Occasionally, your book may be a dynastic saga involving dozens of characters and a two-page family tree diagram to help readers keep track of everyone. That’s okay. But some books will not be so sweeping in scope.
When you’re trying to give your reader a satisfying, entertaining, emotional experience, a cast of thousands is not always required. Sometimes simpler is better, to keep the story focused and the action centralized.
Considerations when deciding whether a character is needed.
- Is there another character in the story already, who might serve the same purpose as the one I’m thinking of creating for my next scene?
For example, do I need to create a nurse to deliver information to John Doe, or can I use Hector again? If readers are likely to become fond of Hector, I may want to expand his role rather than add a new person.
- One formula for plotting says every story needs four characters: Protagonist, Antagonist, Reflection, and Romance.
(a) PROTAGONIST: the main character, whose goals drive the story, whose success or failure will determine whether the ending is happy or sad.
(b) ANTAGONIST: the enemy of the Protagonist, the one whose goals are the opposite of the Protagonist’s goals, so that they cannot both succeed. One must fail.
(c) REFLECTION: the friend or companion of the Protagonist, with whom the Protagonist shares thoughts, feelings, motivations, so that the reader can learn of them.
(d) ROMANCE: the love interest of the Protagonist, the object of their affections; a relationship with them may be the Protagonist’s goal.
Good news! You, All Powerful Writer, can combine two characters, or even three. Or you can add more than one character in a role.
The Protagonist can be one person or a group/team of persons.
The Antagonist could also be the Reflection.
The Reflection could also be the Romance.
The Antagonist could also be (surprise!) the Romance. Or both the Reflection and the Romance.
You decide whether you need one or several Antagonists; one or several Reflections; one or several Romances.
Generally, fewer is stronger.
It is much more interesting to discover one character with many facets than to find many different characters serving the same function, like cookies from the same cookie cutter.
In summary, we’ve all watched that movie or television show where three major characters, and one soldier we’ve never seen before, embark on a dangerous mission. We spot the “expendable crewman” instantly, and we’re not surprised when s/he steps off a cliff.
That is not the fate you want for your supporting characters. But you can’t do without supporting characters, either. Remember John Donne’s 350-year-old axiom: “No man is an island.”
Here’s your brief take-away from all this:
(I.) Make sure no character in your story is there without a reason to be there.
(II.) Make sure you take the time, however brief or long, to examine that minor character and realize how much you actually already know about them.
(III.) Then use that knowledge to put the character into a conflict that will reveal the purpose of the scene while entertaining readers and enriching the world of your story.
Happy reading, happy writing!
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