Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kids, Dogs and Secondary Characters, Oh My!

These are the dogs who live at my house. Pikachu is the Shih Tzu posing real purty like on the piano bench. She'd hopped up there and when I pointed the camera at her, she posed. Yeah. We take a lot of pictures of her. We can't help it, she's too damned cute. Her favorite place is between my feet as I write. Nice way to keep the tootsies warm in the winter.

Storm is my brother-in-law's dog. She's a whippet/Australian cattle dog mix. I'm convinced she's part kangaroo---she bounds up and down the fenceline in the backyard--great leaps. Storm doesn't like loud voices, so she'll hide if I'm howling at the kids, and she doesn't like it when her Daddy snaps his laundry. She hauls a** as far from him as she can, usually winding up wedged under the piano bench, looking spooked and in need of reassurance. She also thinks she's a lap dog, as you can see from the picture. That's one of my kids providing the lap. The chair is a favorite of both dogs, in fact, Pikachu's in it right now. All by herself. Storm loves to put her front paws on my shoulders and "hug" me. She's a giant sweetheart.

These dogs get along like siblings. They taunt. They tease. They're jealous. They fight, but never rough, just more like wrestling, and I often wind up shooing them out of the study because their wrestling makes them continually batter into me. They think the shooing is a game too. Dumb dogs. Both of 'em. Knotheads. Both also are BIG fans of going Buh Bye Car. During the school year, they'd "help" me take the boys to school, then demand treats when they get home for their invaluable help. And there's nothing funnier in the world than Storm sniffing at Chu after Chu's had a bath. The look on Storm's face is puzzled bewilderment---"Where'd your funk go?" Both dogs love to curl up on the sofa with the boys or anyone who's there. Sweet, unconditional love.

Now, I am not a dog person. I like these dogs---a lot, actually---but that doesn't mean I'm going to like your dog, my sisters' dogs, my mother's dog or the neighbor's dog. Odds are, I'm not going to.

But I like these dogs.

A lot.

I may have said that.

What do dogs have to do with writing? Probably not a darned thing. But I'm pretty sure that both will someday wind up in something I write. Names changed, of course, to protect the innocent. Which kinda brings me around in a rather rough segue into writing...Secondary Characters.

I love them. I usually have one that pops off the page and tries to steal the show. Dunno why. They may be imaginary, but boy, are they real to me. Imagination is probably the key here---I tend to let mine run wild. Best way to write by the seat of your pants, IMHO. Don't know that I'd get the same result if I actually *gack* plotted and planned. I do know where I'm going, most of the time, with a story, but I do so love the scenic byways my characters take me on. Yes. I'm a character driven writer. Not all writers are, and that's okay. We all write the way that works for us, and yanno, that's exactly the RIGHT way to write--the way that works for you.

Even for pantsers like me, it's important to know, at the very least, your main characters. Who they are, where they came from, what they do, their family life (family members often become secondary characters), who their friends are, hopes, dreams, conflicts, motivations...It doesn't have to be formal, but I do like, for consistency's sake to know things like eye and hair color, height, age, general physical description at a minimum. Sometimes I even know that sort of thing about my secondaries (especially if they're family members of the Hero or Heroine), but mostly, my secondaries walk on stage and I have to come up with something on the spot.

Now, I like memorable secondaries. Who knows if one might not wind up being the Hero or Heroine in a future novel? But you don't want them to overshadow the current Hero or Heroine. If the secondary character is going to have a bit of a bigger part in the story than just your general "scenery holder" minor character, I think it's okay to infuse some personality into them, necessary even. For example: The current Heroine and Secondary I have going are complete opposites. My Heroine is reserved, a bit haughty, somewhat unapproachable. The Secondary is her exec admin assistant---open, unreserved, unabashed and unapologetic for being true to herself. They have a---schtick, if you will--a routine, a way of dealing together that works for them very well. They won't quite be true friends because of their positions, but this Secondary is likely the closest thing Heroine has to a girlfriend at the moment. The focus of the novel is on the developing relationship between the Hero and Heroine. Yes, Secondary does help that along, but she needs to help it along from the sidelines, without taking over. No scenery chewing allowed from the secondaries.

So, in a Reader's Digest Condensed Version, here are my tips for writing secondary characters...

1. Make sure they're essential to the progression of the story. Do they have a real place and purpose? Are they fulfilling a need? Will they show up more than once in the story? How do they play off the Hero or Heroine, making them better, hinting as to the H/h's personal character and revealing what sort of people they (the H/h)are? We're known by the company we keep, and this applies to those we surround our main characters with, too. Often, our friends and associates help define who we are and it's no different for imaginary people. :)

2. If the secondary character is more part of the scenery, then they're a minor character. A name isn't really necessary---they can be identified by function---Delivery Boy. Server (waiter/waitress). Elevator operator. Taxi cab driver.

3. Keep the secondary in their place, in the background where they belong. Think of the secondaries as bridemaids or groomsmen and the Heroine as the Bride and the Hero as the Groom. You don't upstage the wedding couple. The bridesmaids and groomsmen are there to enhance the entire wedding experience (the story, the plot), can absolutely be important to the wedding couple and the plot and the overall story (and if they aren't, why are they being included in the story?), but don't let them steal the scene---No Scenery Chewing Allowed (unless, of course, it serves a purpose to propel the story/plot forward, and isn't gratuitous.)

For more information about writing secondary characters, check out the links below.

Title Magic: Animals as Secondary Characters

Making Characters Lovable

The Importance of Secondary Characters

Characterizing Secondary and Minor Characters

Incorporating a Subplot and Secondary Characters


It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does. ~William Faulkner

Characterization is an accident that flows out of action and dialogue. ~Jack Woodford

Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page. ~Eudora Welty

I never started from ideas but always from character. ~Ivan Turgenev

Writing fiction is a solitary occupation but not really a lonely one. The writer's head is mobbed with characters, images and language. ~Hilma Wolitzer

Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head and as you get older, you become more skillful casting them. ~Gore Vidal

No comments: