Who IS This? Making Minor Characters Useful


Last week Nailing Down The Essentials continued the Character Development Series with Heroes. I’d planned to talk about the Heroine today, but home life has been incredibly busy (also the reason I’m so late getting this post up), and a post for less significant characters took far less thought than one for a main character. So, this week, it’s minor characterd.

Hotel clerk, bar tender, cab driver, friend of a friend. Anyone can be a minor character in your novel – it’s an equal opportunity career. The minor character is one who is only present for a short time in the story. They can make one appearance, or several, but the reader doesn’t see much of them. They often have a vital bit of information to pass on to the protagonists, and when they accomplish that, they can disappear. Some hang around a little longer to take care of less important tasks, but they don’t get a great deal of attention.

The temptation is to bring the character into the scene, let him do his job and leave, without bothering to do more than name him, if we even do that much. The trouble with that approach is, it can minimize the importance of the character’s job to the reader, causing her to miss something important.

A moment’s more work can add new layers of significance to whichever conflict the minor character is part of, and even introduce the potential for more conflict and tension. Suddenly, this one-off character can reveal some aspect of the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) personality that we may not even have been aware of. The reader’s experience will be richer, the other characters more multidimensional, and the plot can become more complex.

How do we achieve this miracle? Simple. Give the character 2 or 3 unique traits, and reveal those traits judiciously. Put a couple minutes’ thought into the traits, and into how you can get the most mileage out of them.

In Blood Dragon, Kiellen’s mission is to find Jaden after her friends reported her missing. He goes to the motel her friends say she intended to check in to with the man she met at the nightclub. The clerk brings out facets of Kiellen’s personality the reader hasn’t seen yet.

The clerk is young, and insolent, which reveals Kiellen’s impatience in dealing with humans. His tension escalates as the clerk takes his sweet time answering questions. In a scant hint of foreshadowing, Kiellen begins to wonder why his emotions are surfacing with this mission. With his habit of emotional distance from his missions, dealing with anger and frustration while trying to keep a clear head is new, and frustrating as well, introducing a new source of inner conflict.

Of course, I could have revealed all that in other ways. But the clerk provided the opportunity, and to have wasted it would have simplified Kiellen. I could have used another trait for the clerk to either reveal more about Kiellen, or the plot, but I chose not to. Too much of even a good thing can ruin the story.

Give it a shot. Write a scene where your Hero and Heroine are out to dinner. Have the waiter flirt openly with the Heroine, while sneaking snide remarks. Using the Hero’s point-of-view, explore his reactions to this insignificant character. Does he realize he’s jealous? Try to hide that fact from the Heroine? How else does he react to his jealousy? How does the Heroine react? Perhaps this is where the Hero begins to realize he has feelings for the Heroine?

The key to using minor characters this way is striking the balance between giving them enough significance that the reader notices what they do, without making them seem more important than they are.

How do you use minor characters? Do you make them stand out, or just let them fade into the setting?

Advertisements

Too Real For Fiction?

 

A Fact Checker Is Born

I’ve always been geeky, more so at some phases of my life than others. Back in the late 90s, when I finally gave in and started internet service for my work computer, I was instantaneously hooked. All that lovely information out there, right at my fingertips! Suddenly, I could easily and quickly access facts about any subject I chose, no matter how obscure.

Besides being geeky, I’ve also always expected authors to know at least basic information about their settings, and other elements of their books. Put a key Civil War battle in the wrong location, call a mare ‘he’, or place a wild animal outside its possible ecological range, and the book turned into a wall-banger. Add the internet, and I could immediately check facts that just didn’t quite ring true.

WRONG!!!

And apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Today’s reading public is more demanding than ever for accuracy and realism in fiction. We want police procedures to ring true, manufacturer-model-caliber of firearms, medical facts accurate enough for the JAMA, and so on.

As a result of all that, countless readers criticize certain genres for being unrealistic. Make up a creature? Can’t exist, so it’s unrealistic. Alternate history? Yeah, right. A man who treats the woman he loves with respect? Absolutely not!

If you’re going to do something like those things, as an author, you’re often expected to make sure everything else in your book is accurate. No fudging historical details. No bending of physical laws. No hedging of medical details. No liberties with geography. No contriving logic. Well, you can, but someone, probably lots of them, is going to give you grief about it.

The info hound in me is glad for this insistence on accuracy. In part, because it means that as I read, I might be gathering little bits of trivia that could prove useful eventually. Also because I don’t like misinformation being distributed as what someone might mistake for truth.

Creativity v. Real

But the creative part of me wonders just how much realism and accuracy I should expect in fiction. It is, after all, fiction. Inherently not real. Do I really need the author to give the right police code for a kitten up a tree, when the responding officer is going to fall victim to the spree killer? And do I seriously care what kind of suture the surgeon uses to close the gut-spilling, as long as the hero survives it? And what the hell difference does it make whether the germ causing the pandemic is correctly named and classified, if the heroine doesn’t manage to get the cooler with the cure in it across the city so it can be put to use? Do I really care if the heroine’s ball gown is a color that won’t be widely available for another 75 years, as long as she manages to escape the evil countess’s clutches and entice the duke into falling in love with her?

Seriously?

As a reader, why do I get pissed if the author fails to correctly name an obscure object, if the characters are multi-dimensional, the plot interesting, the conflicts exciting, and all the elements of the story well-written? Is it really that important?

I’m not questioning whether the big things should be realistic, things like key battles in the wrong location in a historical novel, or sending low-slung sports cars along heavily rutted logging tracks in a contemporary novel, and that sort of thing.

I’m talking about those little insider details that no one outside a particular field of expertise would know. Do you care that the little container a tattoo artist puts the ink in when tattooing someone is called an ink cap? Or that the narrow band at the top of a horse’s hoof is the coronet? If it doesn’t matter to the story as a whole, do we need our fiction to be that real?

What’s your preference, as a reader? Do you like books filled with excruciatingly real details? Or can you tolerate a little laxness, if the story is good, and otherwise well-written? What are some of the glaring errors you’ve spotted in books?

In The Spotlight! Author Robin Badillo

Please join me in welcoming our very first Spotlight Author, Robin Badillo! As a member of my blogging network, she took pity on me when I mentioned that I needed Spotlight guests. 😀 Robin is a multi-published Paranormal Romance author, and a very busy lady.

Robin Badillo

Check this out, and you’ll see why her Midnight Beckoning just hit my TBR list!

Ford Lenox, a natural born damphyr, waited three hundred years for the phenomenon of his birth to be repeated. Many had been conceived. Many had even been born. But only a few made it to their twenty-first birthday. And none shared the same requirements as he, to assume their rightful place at his side and become his queen.

Until now.

Lauren Neil was born three hundred years to the day after Ford’s birth, and it was no coincidence that he found her only days before her twenty-first birthday. Little did she know that the damphyr lurking beneath her human surface was about to be unleashed, prominently placing her on the throne to rule over damphyr and vampire alike.

Lauren’s demonic sire slash father, Drago, an incubus, straight from the pits of hell, has other plans.

Can Ford fulfill the prophecy and save Lauren and their kind? Or will a new species be created to rule the world?

Even a match made in heaven, may have to go through hell to survive!

Buy Midnight Beckoning!

Robin, I’m thrilled you could be with us today! And thanks for your patience while I worked out details and glitches, LOL. Let’s get started, shall we? Sooner or later, every writer gets this one, and I’m sure you have, as well. Where do your ideas come from?

My ideas come to me in many shapes and forms. Most of them start out as a conversation in my head. Yes, I am one of “those” people who hear voices, but more importantly, or disturbing, depending on how you look at it, I am one of those people who actually listen and even answer back.

Once the scene is set into motion, faces, names, descriptions, angst, dilemmas and every other aspect of writing a romance story somehow falls into place. Having the issue or problem up front and center gives me the foundation to build a story around. So far, it’s working well for me.

How long did you work on Midnight Beckoning?

Midnight Beckoning took about two months to complete, edit, re-edit and tighten up.

There is a long, drawn out process after the publisher gets their hands on it, but the initial timeframe is pretty typical for most of my books.

What makes Midnight Beckoning different from others in the same sub-genre?

I always say that Midnight Beckoning has everything, but the kitchen sink. This is the first time I’ve added other paranormal entities to a story other than vampires. In this story, the main characters are Damphyr. Midnight Beckoning also has vampires, incubi, folklore, legends, Biblical indications and possibly an angel or two. Yep, that just about covers everything, but the kitchen sink.

Do you have a person, perhaps an actor or model, etc., in mind when you picture your characters? How do you decide who the character will be – all the little bits and pieces that go into a person, not just appearance?

For most of my novels, I hunt and search hundreds of stock photos and actors and actresses until one jumps out at me. I generally have an idea in my head such as build, hair color and ethnicity, so when browsing the internet for that perfect man or woman, I sort of know what to look for. Other detailed characteristics like personality, accents or attitude, develop as the story unfolds. Each character has their own way of relaying their voice to me and I do my best to pay attention and get it right.

Who influenced or encouraged you to write, and when?

Two people have influenced me more than any other people in my life when it comes to writing. My daughter, Brittany, loved vampire novels and was crazy about Twilight. I loved the series, too and it proved to be a great way to bond with her over a similar interest. That’s not always easy when dealing with teenagers.

My first trilogy was more of a young adult genre and set me on the path to what I currently write now. The best part of it though, is that at age 16, my daughter is already writing her own book and I can’t wait to see what comes of it.

My best friend, Kim Esparza, was also a great influence because she would get so excited when I sent her a new chapter. Having her squeal over the phone about a direction I had taken a character and clamoring for more of the story, was amazing motivation. She also helped me get my foot through the door by introducing me to a published author she already knew. She’s not only been my dearest friend, she’s also been my inspiration to persevere and keep on keepin’ on!!

I am truly blessed.

You truly are blessed! We wish Brittany all the best with her writing, too. I wish we had more time today, but maybe you’ll join us again soon. Best of luck with your books, Robin!

You HAVE to stop by Robin's gorgeous blog!

Be sure to check out all Robin’s other books. You can also find Robin on Twitter, her Facebook Profile, and Fan Page. Her publisher is eXtasy Books.

A Hero To Die For

**Just a note before your regularly scheduled post. WordPress has offered the opportunity for bloggers to protest SOPA/PIPA, either by going dark today, or displaying the “Stop Censorship” Ribbon until the Jan 24th  Senate vote on SOPA/PIPA, or both. I decided to go with the ribbon, for various reasons.

As a writer, I am 100% against online piracy and theft of Intellectual Property. If I choose to give my work away, I will do so, but I don’t want anyone stealing it from me. But I do NOT believe this legislation is the way to go about protecting against those crimes. I urge EVERYONE in the US to contact their US Senators and tell them point-blank, “Do NOT support SOPA/PIPA if you want to SERVE another term!” Remind them they serve at the pleasure of the people, to represent the people.

If they do not accurately represent you, WORK against them in their next re-election bid. Don’t bitch about the poor job they do if you sit home on election day and justify your lack of fulfilling your civic responsibility by whining that the rich dude or the corporate dude or the insert-your-own-adjective dude will win no matter what. He absolutely WILL if you, and everyone else, continue to sit on your ass and do nothing about it. If you do the work, and he wins anyway, then at least you have the right to bitch. And next time, work harder!

OK. ‘Nuff said. Let’s get on with it.

A Hero To Die For

This piece originally appeared on GraveTells.com, Nov. 4, 2011. I wrote it as part of “The Hero Chronicles Discussions Series”. I’ve decided to run it again here, as part of my ongoing “Nailing Down the Essentials” Writer Wednesday series. It’s the second (here’s the first) post in a series on character development that I’ve been thinking about for a while. You can expect further entries on other types of characters, like heroines, villains, sidekicks, secondaries, and throw-aways/red-shirts.

So, here we go. (Oh, and despite serious temptation, I left out the NSFW pics that really wanted to be included. *sigh* The sacrifices I make for you.)

A Hero To Die For

You know him – the one that makes your heart pound at the thought of being near him, and not just because he’s so beautiful. Being the woman that wins his heart would satisfy you in a way nothing else could. He’s the Hero.

Impressive Cardboard?

Romance novel heroes tend to get a bad rap in the rest of the literary world. What’s that? …Oh, right. The rest of the world, literary or not. Many people believe heroes are just gorgeous faces with chiseled jaws, ripped bods with washboard abs. And don’t forget the “impressive manhood”.

Paranormal Romance heroes have an even worse rep. They’re supposed to be all-the-above, plus they’re either emo vampires, or savage werewolves, bad angels, or redeemable demons. Sci-Fi Romance has its misunderstood aliens. Historical Romance has the rakehell noblemen. Non-Romance readers probably associate all the subgenres with some stereotypical Hero or other.

The few who are so one-dimensional are the ones to get noticed, and perpetuate the misconceptions. No wonder non-Romance readers don’t want to get to know them. I wouldn’t either, if that were truly all they were. Fortunately, there’s sooo much more to a good Hero.

The Perfect Hero

But what makes a really good Hero? What makes him who he is? Can he be imperfect? Damaged? Not physically beautiful? That’s what we’re here to figure out.

A person’s appearance is often our first impression. Our, and the Heroine’s, first impression of the Hero is no different. What is it about him that catches her, and our, attention? I’ve read Heroes with phenomenal good looks, and just average appearances, and a few who were horribly scarred. But there’s something more, some indefinable quality, about all of them. Whatever it is, that quality makes them utterly beautiful to their Heroine.

A man’s actions can tell us a lot about him. There are good boys and bad boys, both in novels and in real life. The bad ones seem to be favored right now, just begging to put the past behind them and start all over with the right woman (though we all know that in real life, bad boys usually stay bad). But just because he’s bad, doesn’t mean he can’t have a good side. And even the good boys will do bad things if they have to, and since life is messy, they often do. Then we have Alphas, who take charge naturally, and Betas, who step up when it matters, and both can be sexy as hell.

But appearance and personality are just parts of the person, like so many pieces of the puzzle. What really brings a Hero to life is change. If he’s the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, he’s just window dressing – a hot body to fill in certain empty spaces in the book. Not a real person.

At a bare minimum, he has to have a conflict, and work to resolve it. Ideally, he’ll be conflicted in several areas of his life, both internally and externally. Real people can fight the bad guys, and work on overcoming a phobia stemming from a childhood trauma, while seeing that their elderly mom has what she needs, and making bullies leave the neighbor’s kid alone, all while they’re coming to terms with the monster that lives in their heart, and so can a Hero. While he’s dealing with whatever trouble the author throws at him, he can also handle issues from a bad childhood, along with a jealous ex. Our Hero might not settle all his conflicts, but he will grow as a person because of them.

Romances from a couple of decades ago were full of Heroes who swooped in on their white horses and rescued the Heroine, whether she wanted to be saved or not. Today’s ideal Hero (with an action based plot) fights at his Heroine’s side to save both their asses, and is just as likely to need rescuing as she is. If there’s no bad guy, he’ll still fight, in whatever way necessary, to win his Heroine’s heart. He might start out being an arrogant a$$hat, but he’ll learn to respect his Heroine’s opinion and abilities, and to rely on her.

But what really tops it all off, turns a hot, exciting man into the perfect Hero? Love. Whether he’s a good boy, or bad, alpha, or beta, his love for his Heroine makes him perfect. The kind of love that makes him willing to give up his own life, or the very essence of who he is, for her. He will go through hell and back, and we hope for an ending that allows him to survive, win the heroine’s love, and spend the rest of his life loving her.

One of my favorites is JR Ward’s Vishous. What I like about him is that he comes with baggage of several varieties. He’s also not just a muscle bound warrior – he’s fearsomely intelligent and tech savvy. Definitely not a good boy, he’s a stone cold killer when necessary, and into some pretty hardcore BDSM, but he’ll do anything for the people he cares about. While he’s gorgeous, he’s not the traditional so-handsome-it-hurts-to-look-at-him beautiful. Doc Jane, his Heroine, is his reason for living. He might be a character in a novel, but he’s real.

Who Are Your Favorites?

Who are your favorites? Why? Do you prefer bad boys, or good boys? Alphas or Betas? Movie-star-handsome, or not? Describe your perfect Hero – not just how he looks, but those aspects of him that make him who he is.

STRANGER DANGER!!

Absolutely not! I forbid it, young lady! What do you know about this… this… CHARACTER… you’re writing about? Nothing, that’s what! Well, I won’t have it! Before I allow you to write him, you’re going to figure out who he is!

Too much? Really? ‘Cause I didn’t th… Oh well, you get the idea.

Earlier in the week, as I was thinking about how to begin a short series of posts on characters for my Nailing Down The Essentials series, I came across this CuriosityQuills post. The author lays it out far better than I could.

Back in The Good Ole Days…

Way back, when I was a young writer determined to create a best seller, I wrote what I thought were extensive character profiles. Then I spent two decades just dabbling, while I focused on being all I could be as an Army wife, and a mother, and held down a demanding career. When I came back to serious writing a couple of years ago, I’d forgotten about character profiles.

I’m too old to waste time…

Okay, so I’m not ancient. 🙂 But, at 44, there are so many things I want to accomplish. I don’t mind taking the time to do something right, or to savor experiences. But wasting time, especially mine, really irks me.

I started writing my first weredragon novel with not much more than a vague physical description for Van, the hero. Really BIG mistake. I had no idea how or why he would act, what he might think or do in certain situations. I didn’t even know whether he was gay or straight, or what he liked. As a result, I spent a great deal of time writing scenes that didn’t ring true, and trashing them.

In frustration, I took another approach, that also wasted time and words. Every time I needed to make a decision about him (Was he modest, or comfortable with his body?), I wrote a scene justifying the decision (Slightly modest, as a result of his cousin’s cruel teasing when they were adolescents). I ended up writing dozens of scenes that I knew I would never use, but to be sure my decision rang true to his character, I wasn’t sure what else to do.

Why write character profiles?

Some writers might be able to write complex, multi-dimensional characters beginning with only the vaguest of details, and manage to keep every moment real. They make all those bits and pieces cement into characters that are more real and consistent than your college roommate. I can’t do it, though.

These days, I get to know my characters pretty thoroughly before writing the first word of the book, as part of my outline process. I’m not talking about their physical descriptions, or the list of events that make up their lives. I’m talking about the series of experiences that turned them into the people they are. I’m talking about WHY they make the choices they do, and react to certain situations the way they do.

When I know WHY, I can be sure all my characters’ decisions and actions will be realistic for them, that they will be consistent and multi-dimensional. After I point them in the general direction I want them to go, I can trust them to take care of the WHAT and HOW. It becomes their story. The events fit the character, rather than the character changing at the whim of the events.

Getting to know the stranger

HOW do I get to know them so well? Well, the process changes a bit with every new character. First, I decide the superficial stuff, but that could just as easily come after. The physical description, and things like: sex, age, race, profession, birth family structure, location, and etc., are pretty basic and generic.

Then we get to the hard parts. I write their backstory by first dividing their lives up to the present into stages – infancy, early childhood, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood (sub-divided into regular intervals, depending on age, decades, half-centuries, centuries, and etc.), and if necessary, middle-age and old-age, subdivided in the same way as adulthood. For each of those stages/intervals, I write two influential memories, one good, one bad – just a brief little scene overview that can be fleshed out further if necessary.

My vampire’s having a rough day

For a one-hundred and fifty year old female vampire, I would write one good and one bad significant memory for infancy, early childhood, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood. The second interval of adulthood would begin at fifty years old, then one hundred, then each decade thereafter.

Maybe her old brother threw her down the well when she was six, and now she fears water and cramped spaces, after spending thirty six terrifying hours in the well waiting to be rescued. So, she isn’t going to willingly explore the narrow cave that’s actually a tunnel leading to the bad guy’s compound. She’ll need serious motivation, and no alternatives, to go there.

Since I know that, I know that when the bad guy’s henchmen try to force her into the cave at gunpoint, she’s going to fight hard, because she fears the cramped, dark, and damp cave far more than she fears a gunshot wound. I need her to get in that cave, though, so after she kicks the henchmen’s collective ass, I have to throw something else at her, something worse than the cave.

The vampire bounty hunter, with orders to bring her head to the bad guy, bursts into the clearing at the mouth of the cave. Enough? No, maybe she’ll take her chances and fight him too. Let’s add to it. The bounty hunter’s two assistants are with him. And the love of her life will die a permanent death in less than one hour unless she finds a way to save him. Maybe. Oh, and she has the secret weapon, the only thing on earth that can kill the bad guy and ensure her, and her lover’s, survival. She darts into the cave.

Adding it up

If I hadn’t known about the well incident, I might have sent her bravely forth into the cave, even after an earlier scene hinted at her fear. The phobia wouldn’t have been integral to who she is, just a passing fear. We’d have missed that kick-ass fight scene, and the additional conflicts and complications. The character would have been less complex, less real. Each of those memories can be used to add additional facets to the character, and new conflict or resolution to the story.

I don’t stop developing the character when the memories are written. I also create a short story for each main character, just a couple of pages, summarizing the story from their point of view, as if they are THE main character. This takes care of each character’s agenda and motivation as it fits within the larger picture of the whole story.

Now, not only do I know my character quite well, I know how she’s going to react to each situation. I know what else I need to throw at her, for the story to have the kind of impact I want it to have, while being logical and realistic for my character. She’ll be a multi-dimensional person, rather than just blinding going along the road I set for her, overcoming obstacles and making the changes I think she should. She’ll think and feel, and change on her own, and her character arc will feel natural and organic to the reader. She will have a REASON to be in the story.

Yeah, it took extra work at the front end, but it saved countless hours of floundering around trying to get characters to do things that don’t fit their personalities. The result is that I’m writing the story to fit the character, rather than writing a character to simply plug in to the story.

What do you do to get to know your characters before you start writing? Or do you jump in with little more than a vague idea what the character looks like?

Which Pants Are You Wearing?

Okay, so I’m not talking about clothes. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

Are you a pantser, or a plotter?

Translation: Do you write by the seat of your pants, with no plan, or do you outline and plot your project?

I used to be a pantser, but over time, became a plotter. As my writing evolved, so did I.

Have you ever taken a walk on the other side of the fence?

The debate about whether it’s best to outline, or not, often becomes heated. Anything so integral to our writing becomes intensely personal, with about as much emotion involved as debates over various child-rearing techniques. So “heated” is a gross understatement.

The point is, everyone thinks their way is best. Several writers, all using the same approach, will each individualize that method until it becomes their own, each finding what works best for them. And once we find something that works, we stick to it, sometimes to the point where writing becomes highly ritualized. Outlines longer than the finished book. Successive drafts in different colors or fonts. One particular location. A certain shirt. Hey, if it works, use it.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

I’m issuing a challenge. The goal is to adapt and expand as a writer.

If you’re a plotter:  Choose a plot question. A What-if? scenario. Something like… What if an angel fell in love with a serial killer?

Once you have your question, without any further thought, start writing. Don’t make any notes. Don’t think any further ahead than the end of the current scene. When you reach the end of the scene, start a new one, no notes, no thought.

If you’re a pantser: Choose your plot question, as above. Before you start writing, name two characters and decide their roles in your scenario. Write down one major, and one minor conflict. Begin with inciting incidents, the course of the conflict, and the resolution, with a minimum of one sentence to summarize each. Then write your story.

Whether you end up with a short story, or a novella, or even a whole novel, maybe you’ll have a few new tools in your repertoire. And just maybe, you’ll find something to add to your current technique that will help you be a better writer. Hell, maybe you’ll even have a little fun.

 

Are you a pantser, a plotter, or something in between?