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Developing Character Development

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Oct 4, 2019.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I've got my main characters. I'm pretty happy with them. I have sketched out their appearance, traits, backstories, and so on. However, no man is an island, as the saying goes (he's a peninsula), and all MCs need buddies. Secondary characters.

    I have these as well, but I'm still in my phase of trying to get a handle--for myself, at least--on When to Start Writing. That is, when I've done enough character development to feel confident about diving into the writing of the novel itself.

    I fully understand that for many, they dive when they're ready to dive and don't need any objective measure. I'm not sure I do either, nor am I sure any objective guideline isn't merely illusion. I do know that on all my previous novels I came to a point where I wished I had done more planning. So I'm doing more planning.

    Which brings me back to these secondary characters. How much character development do I do here? The easy answer is, less than for MCs, but that's not really much help. Moreover, there's an aspect to secondary characters not found in MCs; namely, the relationship to the MC. Why did this secondary join up with the MC? Also, secondary characters are a way to add shading or contrast to the MC. Depth. Someone to argue with or agree with or sacrifice for.

    As I work on the SCs for each of my MCs, I am finding the process keeps me looking back at plot but also at theme. I don't think it's necessary, or even wise, to try to map out every place where an SC steps onto the stage, what he does while there, and so on. But likewise not to look at it at all risks having an SC who is a cardboard cutout who merely serves a plot point but is otherwise flat. The story deserves better than that.

    Finally, there's one other aspect unique to SCs: how secondary are they? How iimportant are they and are they really secondary or maybe just tertiary? I might picture a character being a good friend to the MC, yet as the story plays out, he doesn't really have much to do. Much of that's going to be organic, but it's another reason to pay some attention to the SCs up front, to see if there's room in the story for them.

    Anyway, that's where I'm at now, finally able to talk about it at least somewhat coherently, and wondering what thoughts others might have about secondary characters in the pre-writing stage.
     
  2. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    The approach I’ve been going with is to let them tag along with the MC (or at least be mildly involved in the plot) and develop naturally.
    Maybe they won’t change, maybe they’ll pull a 180 and become totally different people, maybe they’ll mature into a better version of themselves or maybe they’ll regress. They may even overshadow the MC’s development in some way. It’s all kind of up in the air but all that really matters is that it feel natural.

    Sorry if that’s not a very specific answer but I’m working on the assumption that a secondary character is a character who is not directly part of the stories central conflict (as in they’re not the protagonist or antagonist). Like if you summarized the story in a paragraph, you would include a direct mention of them. That definition covers a lot of ground so I need to keep my advice broad.
     
  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    For me, the side characters have to support the journey of the MC or support the theme in some way. My short stories have always been my most successful because all the characters have served the plot. My novels have all been total failures because I planned a giant cast of characters with no real thought to why they were there (until much later, when I realized that three characters really were doing what one could do better, or that some were not needed at all).

    So now, I plan ONLY the characters who feed the theme. That is it. Just some basic key points to feed the theme.

    I can't start writing a story until I have my character's voice. My POV. When I start to hear my character talking to me I can start writing. When that happens the development for the other characters comes on its own from the thoughts and opinions of the MC.

    Example:

    There is my mother, over there, sixty-five and wrapped in twelve yards of antique lace. She waves at me with her left hand, flashing a four-carot wedding ring. Oh my God, she mouths, while Phil, fifteen years her junior, rubs the back of her neck with his goatee.

    She is jubilant. Luminous. Twenty pounds underweight and addicted to oxycodien, but looking like a god damned angel. She hates Phil, by the way, hence the jelly belly doses of Oxy. But so far she contains it to minor shivers- The way her shoulders scrunch when he kisses her. The way she’s rolling her eyes at him, now, as he tries to pull her out to the dance floor. The way she takes spinning classes, pedalling backwards to tone up her thighs, the same way a person might drive backwards to reverse the odometer.

    I had none of that stuff about the mother in the planning stage. It all came out while drafting.

    So, new characters or character traits come up as I need them to... and I flesh them out as I go.... often in much later drafts.

    Another example, I had the MC have a fight with her boyfriend, but I was very unclear about what that fight was about in early drafts. In later drafts I felt I needed to give a clear example of why they fought, and I came up with this:

    I don’t normally go to The Bean on Thursday nights. Usually, I would be drinking Bailey’s spiked hot chocolate; booing some out of town volunteer ref; while Will tried to convince himself (and a bunch of overweight, middle-aged dads) that goons are a legitimate role in beer league hockey. But, since Tuesday, I was done cheering Will on while he circled the ice doling out facial reconstructions.

    In planning I had no clue that Will played beer league hockey. But after drafting it made sense.
     
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2019
  4. With secondary characters, I have little idea, beyond general appearance and perhaps their overall relationship to a/the main character, of who they are until I actually write them into the scenes. Most of my characters are based on someone I've known in my life so they tend to feel a bit familiar when I'm ready to bring them to the page but I like to give them a lot of room to grow there. I feel like they are akin to actors who develop into a role through their rehearsal.

    As Heliotrope said above, I too find the dialing in on them happens most often in later drafts. I used to spend a great deal of time trying to have it all figured out ahead of my first draft only to find that when I started writing, I was often attempting to shoehorn a character/persona in that wasn't right. I had done so much character work ahead of time though that I had trouble letting those characters go.

    I suppose it follows that I want to work with want serves the story and I feel that I cannot really know what that is until I begin to write/draft the actual story. But that's me.
     
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  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yes! This. Exactly.
     
  6. And I was always soooooooo stubborn about it. Went down kicking and screaming! :)
     
  7. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    For Smughitter I have two main characters that I've spent a lot of time figuring out. I also have a set of hobs that I've spent a lot of time figuring out because they're part of the "fairy core" that makes up the central selling point of the novel. But each of the two MCs are surrounded by humans, and I didn't give them much individual forethought at all. Aliffe spends her time surrounded by other cops, and Haifen lives with a family of four (gramps, a mom, and two kids). I'm figuring those characters out as I go.

    Truth be told, it hasn't taken long to get some idea of who they are, but it's more chapter planning rather than novel planning. Already some loose ideas have taken shape, and I try to make a note of them, but it's not the same as a plan. It's loose. They're there to meet the MC's needs for someone to talk to in the "down time." And making the down time interesting is the challenge behind each scene and chapter.

    There is one human I needed to figure out because he's the link between one of the MCs and a key part of the plot. There's also some other humans who are part of the plot (the targets or bad guys), and I've spent more time on them as well.

    Going from "here's what I did with Smughitter" to some kind of first principles, I'll try and define my groups (and there's overlap):

    Main Characters: I spent tons of time and went into a lot of detail figuring out my main characters. I built my whole story around getting the two MCs right. And to be honest, there is still a sense of "Yeah, but who is this person really?" that persists until sometime after you start writing, but it's on a different level.

    Core Distinctive Characters: The story has a "core" in the setting that makes it distinctive. For me it's the hobs. For skip.knoxskip.knox it might be the historical characters. Maybe some works skip this group - I don't know - or maybe it's something other than characters, or not just characters. But it's important to figure them out because you want that distinctiveness to come across, regardless of how much time they get in the work. It's the spotlight group.

    Plot Characters: Mostly the bad guys, in my case. To have my plot I need to understand these characters insomuch as the role they play in the story and why they affect the plot at certain points. A lot of their personality I can develop as I go, but only if I understand that key point they'll be working for.

    Soft Characters: These are characters whose main role is to support the characters in non-plot moments, in the character-building downtime. I personally take this stuff scene-by-scene.

    For most people I guess there would be more overlap (this character has a big plot moment, but in the meantime he's a soft character....). Maybe another character starts off as a spotlight but then moves into a soft character (what if a hob joins the main group? Suddenly that spotlight moment feels like a gimmick and I have to develop a real person...). It's worth noting, but I expect my soft characters to have more of a plot after book one, and there's some other ways this format might fall apart as time goes on. Nonetheless, I think it might be a useful breakdown.
     
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  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Thanks to all who have replied so far. I'm looking forward to hearing from others.

    FWIW, a search on "how to write secondary characters" does turn up a bunch of hits, with the usual range of utility. I swear the casual and sometimes haphazard conversations here in Scribes most times provide better information on "how to write" than the first ten pages of a Google search.
     
  9. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    I am continually creating 'secondary characters' for my tales, especially 'Empire.'

    Tend to take the 'first look' approach - aka what stands out about the person the first time they appear? Tall? Short? Fat? Good looking? Scars?

    Combined with this is their clothing. Does it stand out? Armor? Academic robes? Official attire? Priestly cassock? Is the color noteworthy?

    Next up is speech and personality. Do they swear? Use slang? Have an educated vocabulary? Are they sociable? Standoffish? Like to talk?

    All this gets summed up in a few words in the opening lines:

    'fat, slovenly guard who made a lazy wave at the gate.'

    'stick thin man with a bulbous head, clad in the dark rune robe of a master wizard.' "I see the prodigal son has returned, to assume his rightful place - piloting a manure wagon."
     
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Secondary characters as foil. This is a good idea. I'd consider what's been said about foils in general, or even about the pairs found in romances or buddy tales: in some way, they compliment one another, perhaps compensate or fill a role the other does not.

    But they could be foil to things other than the main character. MC can be inspired by them, nudged by them, confused by them because they, the SC's, stand out in some way or force the consideration. I remember Hermione's obsession regarding the plight of the house elves; in that aspect, she was basically a foil to the status quo and any other characters firmly entrenched in that status quo. I'll admit, her obsession bugged me at first because it seemed a weird distraction. Eventually, it paid off by turning out to be important to the development of the plot. SCs can fill this sort of role. For instance, if the SC is some foreigner to the land, from some minority class, has a hobby or obsession most others don't, or has ideas that are unusual for most of the cast. The MC's association with that character may represent the MC's status of having one foot in the status quo mire and the other foot outside it, heh.

    I'm curious how others decide whether to combine SC's or keep some separate. I can see the potential in combining them, but I also think that combining too many into one would probably be received as being too much or too pat. One consideration would be how much time you need to spend on those characters. A SC who is important in this way will receive more page space. If you have five or six such characters, this could become a bit chaotic for the story, depending; especially if each seems artificially created to represent a single, different foil for the MC and/or general milieu. Maybe only two or three would work better, then.

    Also, how to decide the number and types of tertiary character? These, I think, are those characters who can come in and out of the story more frequently, with less screen time so to speak, and may even disappear altogether after a single or two brief appearances. They can be foils also, like brief flashes of light illuminating things; or, they could sometimes simply be necessary plot devices. (I'd say SC's can't be only plot devices. They can be important to the plot, filling some necessary plot role, but they need to be more also.)
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2019
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  11. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    This, to me anyway, answers this question.....

    If we look at different plots, with different purposes, then we see how the author made choices as to how many characters were needed to serve the purpose of the story. Tolkien wanted to show that the entire world was at stake, and many groups of people needed to work together in order to save it. Hence, he needed a representative from the Elves, and the Dwarves, and the men, and he needed each group to feel large and fully developed. In this case, he needed a large cast, and it worked.

    In The Princess Bride Goldman didn't need such a large cast because the story was much smaller. It was only a small love story between a farm boy and a princess. He needed a bad Prince and a Farm boy and a girl and a small cast of companions to offer the comedy along the journey.

    For me, I know when I need to combine characters when I find one of them standing around most of the time, or not offering anything new to the plot, or taking the plot in a direction that I no longer need to explore, or taking up too mach air space, when those lines could easily be transferred to another character, making one more fleshed out and interesting character.
     
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  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    HeliotropeHeliotrope: Great points!

    Also, I'm suggesting or exploring the distinction between secondary and tertiary characters. For instance, if a would-be SC is just standing around not doing much, there seem to be three options: remove the character entirely, combine the character with another SC, or make the character tertiary.

    If the third option is chosen....then the question becomes how/where to have that character enter the story and when to have that character depart the story.
     
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  13. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    For me, tertiary characters are the ones who are necessary set pieces... the girl serving beer in the tavern. The child the MC trips over in the street as he is running from the palace guards. The palace guards. lol. Those necessary characters who move the plot forward but only as necessary set pieces. They are basically nameless and faceless and come and go, like how in small town stage productions one actor can be twelve different characters in different hats.

    This would be like the Knight Bus driver in Harry Potter. Needed to get Harry from A to B. Never seen again. You can make them significant foils, or faceless backdrops.
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2019
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  14. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I think the Writing Excuses crew describes those characters as "Spear carriers." (Writing Excuses 10.7: Who Are All These People?) The term apparently comes from theater, "basically literally someone who walks on the stage carrying a spear in the opera of Aida. They're scenery." [M.R.K]

    They have no lines, heh.

    In prose, these might have a word or two, or a brief interaction with the other characters.

    But I think distinguishing between these and tertiary characters might be a good idea. For instance, your fantasy fellowship might have to deal with a sleazy shop owner; this can basically be a whole chapter; then they never deal with him again in the story or perhaps he does happen to appear briefly later. That shop owner might not be merely background spear carrier and may fill what we'd call a larger role for telling the story (probably as foil or representative of something thematic, etc.)
     
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  15. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yes, like the Knight Bus driver (to keep going with Harry Potter), or the like Bombadil in Lord of the Rings. I think those guys are still called secondary characters?.....

    *Edit: OR "supporting characters" in some sources.
     
  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I'm not sure they rise to the level of SC? Of course, this depends greatly on simply how we choose to define terms.

    But I was thinking of an example. Suppose you've worked on having a SC who ends up not doing much but simply standing around. And suppose you had that character in the first place as a kind of foil to something or as someone who represented something about theme or even simply a world building device. Then suppose you chose to make the character tertiary instead. An example of this could be one of the soldiers in a company marching across a land while your MCs and SCs are marching with them. You wanted a foil against the status quo? Maybe that soldier is an immigrant, or a former slave, or worships a different religion. He could appear from time to time during the chapters involving this march and small skirmishes, briefly talking with the MC, maybe only occasionally offering a line of dialogue while everyone else is involved in a deeper conversation (focus on them.) Lots of stories have this sort of character that is kinda in the background most of the time. I'd call this another type of tertiary character.
     
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  17. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yes. I do this ALL the time. This is what I consider still as "combining characters." I have these characters on a journey, and they are with some spear holding soldiers, and I have this one companion who doesn't offer much, but I still need him there for the plot development or as a foil or whatever. And I start to think, "Who else could do this job? Couldn't one of the spear holders do it?" Then I think, "Oh, yes, that would be even better, actually. It would be nice to give one of the spear holders a voice and flesh him out a bit."

    Done. Characters now combined, making a single, more interesting character, even if it is in a demoted role.
     
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  18. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    :sneaky: Yeah, so all the other soldiers, who are merely background, are the spear carriers. The one you flesh out is now a tertiary character. So the choice is, "Do I combine this failing SC with another SC, or do I elevate one of the spear carriers to tertiary status instead, given that I want X role/effect to remain in the story?"

    *demoted demented to demoted, heh. :love:
     
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  19. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Lol! I fixed it after!!!!

    Yes. Whatever furthers the plot and is the most interesting is what I do. Sometimes I end up with great combos! Like an old sage who didn't say much but needed to give important information that only an old guy would know, ended up combined with the MC's wolf pet who was there to show her softer side and her devotion to a loyal companion, making for an elderly talking wolf, which made the world much more interesting and worked for that particular story.
     
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  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I've had some experience with the sort of thing you guys are discussing. I've had characters whom I thought would play a large role in a story but who turned out to occupy only a chapter or two. And the converse. I even had one extremely minor character--he was just a smart-ass at a dinner table--turn into the MC of my first novel.

    Having watched characters slide in one direction or the other, I'd not fret too much over the line between secondary and tertiary. The categories are real enough, but trying to define them too carefully is a waste of effort. Is there more too it than just screen time? Maybe, but I suspect the line is going to get drawn differently for each different story and author.

    For my present work, I have my hero and he has to have some friends along. So that's MC and a small clutch of SCs. But the antagonist needs to have his own circle of buddies, as does the villain who is operating behind the scenes. Right now, I've identified a group of people for each (I view it as having three main characters--protagonist, antagonist, and True Villain) and I'm willing to leave it open as to which ones are truly secondary and while might slide down to bit players. If the distinction is quantitative rather than qualitative, then it really is a matter of seeing who remains on the page when the editing's done. If it's qualitative, if there is some clear functional difference, I'll be keeping an eye out for it and will duly report to the Scribally Assembled.
     
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