Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Minor Key


Woman Reading,

Eastman Johnson,

c.1874.


In preparation, some writers outline their main characters in almost excessive detail -- down to their favourite colour, song and food, and whether or not they clean the tub after a bath. If nothing else, this premeditation saves one (in the middle of chapter five) from staring at the screen for forty minutes while one tries to decide on a suddenly significant/useful mannerism or minor fact.

But sometimes, one receives the impression that writers are so entranced with providing a full-frontal of their major character(s) that they neglect the minor ones.

While they seldom require equivalent depth, secondary characters should not appear as cut-out dolls or mechanical pieces. Certainly their prime use is to provide information to advance the plot, motivation for the protagonist, or revelations about the lead character, but they are most effective in these respective roles when they live.

Of course, one has to guard against over-development of minor characters, else they may disclose an alarming tendency to run away with the story.


Both Angie and Written obligingly produce links on occasion to various markets.


Jason's Clarity of Night flash fiction contest closes tonight at 11 pm.Wildly popular. Last I looked he's received 200 entries. Fascinating reading and tremendous variety. Counters winter blahs and seasonal ennui.


25 comments:

Whirlochre said...

In acting, as in writing, there is a school of thought which proposes that you have to know absolutely everything about your characters, even if the material isn't used. Some fantasy RPG players are also rumoured to hold this view, and are often forced to live on the streets to make room for their various maps, family trees and fantasy birth charts.

Having just found stacks of background material for a bunch of characters I created in the 90s (who I still remember in spite of absent-mindedly forgetting which brand of gluten-free cereal they were most likely to turn down if they found themselves on a flight from Budapest to Perth), I can only conclude I had time for this approach in my late 20s.

Now, my view is — stick in only what's relevant, and ensure it all hangs together. I have no desire to (drumroll for apt word verification) anize.

Bernita said...

Whirl, I'm a panster, not a plotter, except in the most loosey-goosey outline way.
I admire their diligence and detail but if I chose that approach I'd never end up getting any writing done.

raine said...

Can't do it. Cannot get down to the minute details many people do. I understand that it helps the process, and may make the characterization more consistent throughout the work; but have a feeling that if I tried it I'd be bored with them by chapter two. :/

Of course, one has to guard against over-development of minor characters, else they may disclose an alarming tendency to run away with the story.

BIG problem for me, lol.
Battling it in the current wip.
I've had to bribe them with promises to write stories for them too.

Bernita said...

"I'd be bored with them by chapter two"
Me too, Raine!
Npthing beats the excitement of a character revealing themselves as they encounter obstacles as the story unfolds.

Angie said...

Thanks for the link. :)

I remember a fad a while back where everyone and their brother-in-law was circulating The Perfect Questionnaire (each with a different version of same, of course) which you Absolutely HAD to fill out for each of your characters if you wanted to be able to call yourself a writer. Umm, right. :/ I suppose that sort of thing might work for some people, but to me it seems like the vast majority of the choices are going to be either random or stereotype-driven. My characters grow organically, and I find that if I need to know what someone is wearing or what they order for dinner, the info is just there when I'm writing the scene.

Understanding that most of it isn't going to be terribly significant is the important thing. Angsting over twelve pages of trivia questions -- for each character! -- gives the writer the false impression that every tiny detail is of vital importance, and that getting any one of them wrong will Ruin Your Story, OMGBBQ! Talk about adding unnecessary stress to the process.

Angie

Bernita said...

Angie, I also write organically, and I have an organic dislike for such formula.

Barbara Martin said...

I have never gone into great detail on any of my characters, major or minor; but add bits here and there to add brief insight into their personalities. If I prepared complete details on their histories the manuscripts wouldn't be written as I would be bored with the idea by then.

StarvingWriteNow said...

When I was writing, I wrote out some things about my characters on paper (lol, I remember those questionnaires, Angie!) just to keep me on track: like, she's divorced, she's diabetic, she's got blue eyes... I'd write it down so I wouldn't forget and change eye color or whatever halfway through. Other than that... I just left my characters alone.

Everyone conjures up a face and such in their minds eye when they read; for me, if there's too much detail (or the WRONG detail) about a character, major or minor, it can be distracting or disappointing--I remember reading a romance years back in which the female lead had large breasts. The author mentioned it several times in several different ways early on and for the rest of the story, and to this day, what I remember most is not the conflict or the characters, but the boobs.

Angie said...

Starving -- just to keep me on track: like, she's divorced, she's diabetic, she's got blue eyes... I'd write it down so I wouldn't forget and change eye color or whatever halfway through.

I do the same thing. [nod] As details come up during the course of the writing, I'll usually jot them down so I can easily find them again later. If it's a short story I'll probably just remember, but for a longer story or a novel I'll have pages of notes, mostly on characters -- things like coloring, age, job, how they take their coffee, whether they call it a couch or a sofa, that sort of thing. If I need a detail, I'll make it up in the story and then jot it down in my notes file. Much easier than doing a search on the whole manuscript later if I need something, or having some key detail change six times. [laugh/flail]

Angie

Bernita said...

Barbara, you're like Raine and I/me!

Laughing about the boobs, but that's a very good point about the wrong detail,SWN.
I do the same, have all these ratty, scribbles lying around that help me keep things straight.

Ric said...

Little bits of traits or character to advance the plot - ie she was quite short (the bad guys did not see her as a threat and were more likely to let something slip in her presence). I have always found that over-presentation prevents me from forming my own mental picture of the hero. - and mine is usually better than the author's.
The boob thing is funny, though.

Knowing your characters favorite color is red seems pointless - unless, of course, the bad guy finds her by randomly picking a street, and walking until he spots a house with a red door. At that point, it becomes a plot bunny.

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend not to know a huge amount about my characters when I start. I like the aspect of discovering things about them. Plus, we don't really know real people that well.

Bernita said...

Right, Ric. Over-preparation might lead a writer into over-description. We all have that urge to not waste stuff.

My feelings too, Charles. Sometimes characters/people themselves don't know how they will react to a situation until they are confronted with it.

Natasha Fondren said...

That's such a good point. I'm having trouble with one of my characters now. I guess she's not minor, but she's meant to be a secondary character, and she's... arresting. You get her with a single image, like a punch. Instantly vivid.

Now I'm struggling to make the main characters as vivid and alive.

BernardL said...

The secondary characters provide humor, focus, and background minutia that would otherwise bore the reader if not placed in scene interaction. I agree - they really don't deserve short shrift. :)

writtenwyrdd said...

What I do is think of a character in general, start to write him/her, and as I go along, I copy and paste snippets into a file on them as I go along, so I don't forget what I decided on the fly.

I love computers for this ability. My memory is cheesecloth, and without that cut and paste ability I'd be in trouble.

Bernita said...

Natasha, maybe your secondary should be your primary?
But I agree, some characters complete more quickly than others.

Some writers ( and I think you're one of them) can snap-shot an entire character in a single phrase, Bernard.

Eh, Written! Being Ludditish, I do the same thing w/scraps of paper - and sometimes it's a gopher-flurry of flying paper to find the scrap I want.

writtenwyrdd said...

You can have a notebook and just tab it with the character's name so you can find it fast and jot all your notes on the same page (or an index card, if that's your thing.)

Bernita said...

Thank you, Written. Good, practical, sensible, admirable advice - which I'll probably be too distracted, disorganized, and lazy to follow, but should .

writtenwyrdd said...

Once you start doing it with the same notebook to hand it becomes habit and is much easier. In the past, I've used a binder so I can reprint the computer pages after I type in the handwritten notes, lol.

Lately, I just use the reference document for that story or world. Just open the word file for the story you are working on so you don't get lazy. It's faster than writing by hand, too.

laughingwolf said...

i'm a pantster too, so far...

some amazing entries in jason's contest, for sure!

Bernita said...

LW, there certainly were. Yours was on my Reader's Choice list of top ten.

SzélsőFa said...

Oh, about Jason's contest - I am unable to cope with the vast amount of interesting entries.
re: your post: totally agree. you sum it up neatly.
in movies, these secondary characters are also called supportive ones - this explains a lot about their role.
for some writers however, who tend to work with a certani depth of details, this can be a very difficult task.
in Halo, there's only one main character, but I will re-check the others (if they are alive enough).
I come here - always to learn something, a new aspect of writing. yum.

Bernita said...

"in movies, these secondary characters are also called supportive ones - this explains a lot about their role"

Indeed, it does, SzelsoFa!

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