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Make Every Character Count

Cheryl's Musings: Make Every Character Count

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Make Every Character Count

Blog ImagesI’ve been re-reading some of my favorite books (my favorite form of writing inspiration) as I rewrite my own, and I’ve been struck by the attention authors give to secondary characters.

For instance, in Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty (a Victorian fantasy about a young woman discovering her dangerous magic ability at boarding school—minor spoiler alert), each of the girls has her own fears and desires that come out in the course of the story.

  • Anne: At first glance, she’s the unattractive, stuttering, and somewhat boring charity student; digging deeper, though, we discover that she dreams that her life will have a fairy tale ending, that someone will discover she’s actually a lost heiress and she will be rewarded for her brave endurance through trials.
  • Felicity: Wealthy, nasty, and a natural leader, other authors might have let Felicity slide by as the Victorian equivalent of today’s vindictive cheerleader type; but instead, she’s a many-layered character, victimized by her father, abandoned by her father, proud, and terrified of not having power to control her life.
  • Pippa: Felicity’s best friend, Pippa is the beauty of the school, but again, she’s no stereotype. Pippa has a dark secret, one that she fears will keep her from her dream of true love—a dream that’s unlikely enough for any girl during this time period, but especially for one whose family wants to marry her off quickly, before her secret is discovered. 

Each of these characters could easily be a stereotype, but Bray brings them to life with unique character traits  such as stuttering, cutting, and secret fears and longings. And because of this, her characters live.

It’s put me in rewriting heaven, because I’m inspired to take a closer look at my *own* secondary characters. The result? I discovered that although they each had fine voices and distinctive characteristics, they were…unsurprising. The grandfather was grandfatherly. The diner waitress was practically cracking gum. Worse, I discovered that I didn’t know nearly enough about even my more important secondary characters. Reis, for instance, has spikey blonde hair, round-lensed glasses, talks a lot, and plays guitar—all of which gave me enough of a character to draft the scenes where he makes an appearance. But when I started asking harder questions, I found I didn’t know the answers. Does he have a summer job? Does he want a summer job? If not, what’s he doing all day on a lonely island with few others his age? What does he want more than anything? What does he fear more than anything?

Most of us ask those questions about our main characters, but it’s easy to let minor characters squeak by as stereotypes.

A funny thing happened as I figured out the answers to those and other questions: my characters came to life, too. Today’s task has been to rewrite the grandfather’s scenes using his new persona—one much more paranoid and hard-edged than the original character. I’m finding that he has a lot of surprising things to tell me….

Happy writing and rewriting, everyone!

:) Cheryl



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