Wednesday, 8 September 2010

3 Things to Think about when Minor Characters Take Over

Something I hear from writers, both new and established, is how minor characters threaten to take over the novel. First, get a grip. They're not real people. They can't 'take over', any more than the book can write itself (I wish!). It's all about you and your subconscious mind popping out and onto the page. Minor characters can be great fun to write because they can be extreme. Extremely good, or extremely nasty, extremely boring, extremely wayward, it doesn't matter. We can get away with writing the sort of character we think we wouldn't want to write a whole novel about.

That's the first clue. We think we wouldn't want to write a whole novel about someone so extreme, and therefore our tendency is to make our central character, the one we want all the readers to like, too bland. They become over anxious to please, pawing at the writer with big love-me eyes. Irritating in real life, irritating to write. No wonder we start getting caught up in the character who doesn't give a damn what the reader thinks of them. So the first thing to check for is: is your main character too bland?

The second thing to look out for is active or reactive. Main characters drive the plot, not react to it. If your minor characters are providing the plot lines and your main characters are reacting to it, no wonder your minor characters are taking over. They ARE the main characters. So take a good hard look at your novel - who is driving it forward? If the answer is anything other than the characters you think are your main ones, then you're going to either have to change them to make them more active, or shift the story focus to your minor characters.

The third and last thing is related to the first two. Is your main character's problem interesting enough? Does it really matter to them, and to you? We are all the stars of our own lives and our problems are vitally important to us, but they're secondary to others. (Which is why it's so easy to dish out advice to other people - 'leave him!' or 'tell her what you really think'.) Your main character's problems have to be as real and important to you as your own problems are to yourself. Because if they're not, your reaction as a writer will be the same as listening to a friend talking about some problem they've got which doesn't affect you at all. Your attention will wander off to minor characters who seem more, well, fun.

So there we are. Three things to think about. I never said I'd be providing a solution to this one, just stuff to think about.


Jenny Haddon said...

Sarah, this is so true. I'm telling one of my characters to brace up and act, right now.

However, I do think it's particularly difficult for the twenty-first century writer because so many of us feel (and are) powerless. So we are used to being reactive rather than proactive in our real lives. And fiction reflects real life, right?

Dickens had poverty, child exploitation, a frighteningly complicated and unfair legal system, but his characters did what they chose and dealt with the consequences. Now some 'safety net' would catch lots of us before we got to the fictionally interesting stuff.

And Dickens's protagonists owned so much less. It is much easier to move on from rented rooms or a live-in job than it is from a mortgage and PAYE.

Bureacracy and prosperity between them killed fiction - discuss.

Sarah Duncan said...

Up to a point Lord Copper (why does no one read Waugh anymore? I mentioned him to a group of English students and got blank faces.)

Romance is certainly harder because there are fewer reasons why we can't be together. I'm sure that that's one of the reasons why so many writers are writing historical fiction at the moment.

But there are still adventures to be had, and problems to be solved. You just want to make sure it's your major characters who are doing it.

Julie Cohen said...

It's different types of adventure these days, though I must say I'd love to write about a nice middle-class girl with a mortgage and PAYE who masterminds a London pickpocketing ring exploiting child labour. Nice.

The nice thing about writing and reading fiction is that these characters *aren't* powerless, I think.

Proving that great minds think alike, or rather that Sarah has a great mind and probably wrote this days ago in her super-organised way, and I am just jumping on the bandwagon in a shambolic fashion, I just posted about the opposite problem to this, when minor characters don't pull their weight, on my blog. :-)

Sarah Duncan said...

Oganised, moi? Doesn't sound like me at all. I think I'll go for the great mind instead.

ClothDragon said...

We still have poverty and child exploitation. If you haven't seen poverty, all you have to do is drive to a different part of town.

In the US we have laws about how old a child has to be before they can work, but those shirts that say made in mexico or taiwan. There's a good chance children made those. And children are exploited still exploited here, but for different reasons now.

Some people still own very little and move from room to room. When my sister lived with a tile layer that's what they did; traveling from one WalMart construction site to the next with nothing but 3 sets of clothes and an x-box.

We still have homeless. The fact that we have old people losing their retirement because some overpaid bank executive made bad choices might make them helpless, but it doesn't take away any of that other stuff. Welfare may be out there to keep people from starving, but do you know how many hoops you have to jump through to get it? People still starve to death.

Here are some child poverty statistics:

Oh and we do still have a frighteningly complicated and unfair legal system. Have you looked up how many innocent people Texas has executed over the last few years?

We have everything Dickens had except the colorful British accents. It's just harder to see if you were raised with plenty.