The winner of the raffle is Peggy Janousky! Peggy, email me and let me know which prize you’d like: the ten-page critique or the necklace pictured in the first blog post.
How I Got Past a Current Bout of Writer’s Block
I hit a snag in my WIP recently, a snag that took me days to get through. During that time, I washed the kitchen floor, ate leftover Skittles from Halloween (I don’t even like Skittles), made dinner at 11 a.m., and engaged in other avoidance behaviors that were even less productive (and sometimes more fattening) than the Skittles. I could not get past the quarter mark of the novel, even though, plot-wise, I knew what was supposed to happen. And then, somewhere between a cherry turnover and a rerun of Castle that I’d seen several times, it started to dawn on me: I didn’t know my secondary characters or other minor characters very well. Sure I’d given some of them names, and one of them had even appeared in the first chapter briefly. But who were they really? Even though my main character who had just walked into the room didn’t know them yet, I needed to know who they were right now. I suppose if I were an extreme “pantser” I could have muddled through the scene and rounded out the characters later, but that method wasn’t working for me. I was stuck.
This revelation took me on another avoidance journey but a more productive one. I began reading articles and leafing through some of my favorite novels to see how others had rounded out their secondary and walk-on characters. Here are some of the things I learned:
Even minor characters have motivations.
This definitely is a no-brainer, but figuring out external and internal goals of main characters is hard enough. So it’s easy to forget that everyone has a story—even the guy that’s standing over in the corner of the room. I’d done a lot of backstory work on my two main characters, but I hadn’t done any work on the rest of the players. Although some of this info might never make it into the chapter, or even the novel, I realized I needed to know what these characters wanted and what that would mean to my main characters.
Names can do a lot.
When the time isn’t right to go into backstory or motivation on a minor character, there are other ways to tell who they are in just a few words. In Liar & Spy, Rebecca Stead gives us vivid portraits of several characters in the first two chapters through naming. First, her main character, Georges, tells us that his name is pronounced George, but the “S” is silent. This causes some kids to call him Gorgeous, which he says he doesn’t mind. With just that description, we learn so much about both Georges and the secondary character, Dallas Llewellyn, who calls Georges Gorgeous. (And isn’t Dallas a great name for a bully?) We also learn a lot about another secondary character, P.E. teacher Ms. Warner. She calls Georges “G” because she’s trying to help him out by making the name “G” stick. That also tells us a great deal about her character and her relationship with Georges. In addition, we’re given insight regarding secondary character, “Bob English Who Draws,” when we’re told that their fourth grade math teacher gave Robert English the name because he was always “zoning out and doodling,” and the nickname stuck. So, character names are, of course, important, but it can be equally important to tell the reader what the characters call each other and why.
Go against type.
Even with very minor characters, it’s important not to stereotype. Robyn Schneider does a great job with this in The Beginning of Everything. The main character, an injured, former athlete who has to hobble to the front row of the assembly because he can’t climb the bleachers, describes the others there as “all teachers and this one goth girl in a wheelchair who insisted she was a witch.” By going against the stereotype of the poor girl in a wheelchair, Schneider not only gives us a vivid picture of the character, but also tells us a lot about the narrator describing her. He doesn’t want to be seen as a stereotype either.
Give your secondary character a skill, preferably one that’s unexpected.
I’m currently reading Jandy Nelson’s fabulous I’ll Give You the Sun. And I was surprised when a secondary character, who didn’t seem to be the athletic type at all, suddenly started throwing rocks like a professional athlete. It gave one of the protagonists (and me) a whole new perspective on the character. This particular character is also an astronomy enthusiast, which makes for great conversations between him and one of the main characters.
Give your secondary character a defining characteristic.
You can do this with a physical description, a habit, or a pattern of speech. But it’s harder than it seems. I’ve read articles about how many secondary characters in novels have red hair. Yes, it can set them apart from the other characters, but it’s become so common, it’s hardly a defining characteristic anymore. Same with such habits as picking cuticles and biting lips. You’d think teens everywhere would have bloody fingers and lips with all the cuticle picking and lip biting that goes on in YA novels. Strive for unique details. Study actors on TV. On The Blacklist, James Spader does this weird thing with his tongue when he’s giving someone an ultimatum. It’s a brilliant quirk that distinguishes him from everyone else. You also want to avoid using trendy and overused words like “hotilicious” to distinguish your character’s dialog. When it comes to speech patterns, look at sentence structure. Does your character only speak in simple, noun-verb-object sentences? Or does he ramble on? Does she avoid contractions? Does he talk in sentence fragments only? How can your character’s speech make her memorable?
I’m off now to put all this into practice. If you have any suggestions on how you’ve rounded out your secondary characters and other minor characters, feel free to share. I’d love to hear about them.