I think this has been going around the internet for a bit, but I thought I’d share it anyway — JK Rowling’s ‘spreadsheet’ for Order of the Phoenix. It’s similar to what I do with Post-It Notes and a blank bedroom wall, but neater. (And clearly, her cats haven’t been having fun with this, either.)
In all my spare time this week (which has mostly been the 5 minutes or so before I go to bed), I’ve been continuing to think about secondary characters, what makes them tick, and why they’re so vital to novels.
Since I’m reading Karen Marie Moning’s newest, Burned, this week as well, I thought I’d look at her remarkable secondary characters and how they fit into the arc of her series.
We’re first introduced to Mac – MacKayla Lane – and Jericho Barrons in the first novel, Darkfever. Mac is in Dublin to find out who killed her sister Alina, and avenge her death if she can. That’s it. Then she’s going back home to her rainbow life in Georgia. Barrons, on the other hand, is the suave, urbane, predatory owner of the bookstore Mac happens to end up in on her first night in Dublin. What’s his end game? We aren’t sure. But we’re pretty sure it involves Mac.
Then, we meet V’lane, a Seelie prince with almost limitless power and a vested interest in Mac, for two reason: one, he needs to keep her alive and on his side in his search for a powerful magical object; and two, he really likes to needle Barrons.
Dani O’Malley, we met last week. A 14-year old spitfire, she – like Mac – can see the Fae. She and Mac become like sisters. Dani, however, lives with a conclave of sidhe-seers, who seek to control her via many, many rules — and other methods. This tends to backfire quite badly where Dani is concerned.
Rowena is the Grand Mistress of the sidhe-seers. She hates challenges to her authority. She craves more power than she already has. She sees herself as the seers’ only chance of survival. And she particularly hates Mac, because Mac is a major threat to her control.
Then there’s Christian MacKeltar, a college student and Druid, whose powers are going to get him into MAJOR trouble a few books down the road.
And of course, I can’t forget Barrons’ buddies — eight ruthless, gorgeous, powerful . . . well . . . men, for lack of a better word. 🙂 His right-hand man is Ryodan, whose job it is, we learn later, to watch over Mac when Barrons isn’t around. It’s an odd thing for him to have to do, considering he doesn’t like Mac and vice-versa. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’d like nothing more than to eat her for breakfast. And not in a good way. He’s smart, a businessman who ends up running the hottest club in Dublin after the walls come down between humanity and Fae, and almost completely without humanity himself. One of Moning’s brilliant maneuvers is to make him more human, through his actions.
There are literally dozens more characters who influence and shape the plots of these novels. But what Moning does best is give each character a background, a reason for being who they are. And then she lets them run free across her pages, creating and destroying their own worlds.
For example: much of Dani’s early life is influenced by her hyperspeed. Her mother hides her away, unable to control her; when her mother dies, Dani is actually left to starve in a metal cage. It’s Rowena who finds her and brings her to the abbey, where the other seers try to care for her. Dani is caught between two oppositional desires: on one hand, she desperately wants a family, to belong and to be accepted; on the other, she finds it difficult to trust anyone and prefers to live life on her terms, regardless of what anyone else thinks of her. Survival above all is her motto. No matter what.
V’lane is the ultimate bad boy. You know you shouldn’t trust him. You KNOW he only wants Mac for his own ends. But he’s so darn good at convincing us otherwise! Not only is he bad to the bone, but he’s a con artist to boot. What woman can resist? So because of this – and because he saves Mac on at least two occasions – we trust him despite the great big yellow caution flags at every corner. One of the things she does to great effect here, though, is to capitalize on his otherness. If he makes a misstep, we can put it down to his not being human. She doesn’t make the mistake of letting him be too like the humans. She reminds us every step of the way that he is Fae, and not just Fae, but one of the more powerful ones.
in Moning’s world, secondary characters help and hinder. They clash and collide. They step up to become something more than secondary characters, in fact. Not quite main characters — we always know, and never forget, that this is Mac’s story. But they live in her world. They’re just as affected by the walls collapsing as she is. How they react to it is due to their own backgrounds, their own personalities. Dani fights. Ryodan loots banks and creates his own sphere of influence. Mac tries to find a way to put the walls back up. Rowena sees a chance to regain the power and control Mac has cracked. Their choices, and their decisions, influence Mac. Ryodan wants a favor? Hmm. Let’s see how far we can push him, what ‘I owe you’ we can extort from him, first. Dani needs a big sister? Mac’s hesitant at first, but she realizes that Dani could help fill the void that Alina’s death left in her soul. Barrons wants the object of immense power – but is that really the extent of his interest in Mac? She isn’t sure, and isn’t sure she wants to find out, either. Not at first.
Over the course of these (so far) seven books, each of these characters has grown, changed, adapted. Some have died. Some have shown their true colors. Some have sacrificed themselves so that the others can live. Moning isn’t afraid to let her secondary characters shine through and take control. In fact, the world she’s created demands it.
I remember the first time I saw this house. I was driving aimlessly after an especially rough class — the kind of class I’d never experienced before, in which I was verbally attacked by a student. Too upset to go home, I drove and drove, replaying the moments, wondering what I should have done differently.
And then I turned down one last road, and saw this.
The sagging porch, the missing shutters, the empty windows . . . it was reflecting me.
Things got hectic this weekend, so instead of me going on and on, please enjoy this selection from YA author Debra Dockter. 🙂
Life is so hectic. We put so much pressure on ourselves. Others put too much pressure on us.
But then, you’re driving, or on a walk, or doing something else entirely . . . and you look up and see a spectacular sunset. You breathe. Deeply. Maybe for the first time all day. You close your eyes for a moment. You pick up your camera (because it’s never far away, is it?). You remember that there are things in life other than mortgages and classes and bosses.
These were taken exactly one month apart, both at my pond.
December 27, 2014
November 27, 2014
Often as writers we spend so much time perfecting our main characters — describing them, thinking up actors/actresses that resemble them, developing their back stories and family life, favorite music and movies and cars, and maybe even their genealogy back five generations — that we neglect another very important group of characters.
Our secondary characters.
I don’t mean the ones that get listed as “Waiter” or “Subway Rider 1” in the credits. I mean the ones that have names and faces and quirks and personalities and lives. We know they play a big role in our stories, but maybe we sort of don’t think they’re quite as important as our MCs. Right? I mean, they’re not driving the story. It’s not their choices that get us from Point A to Point Q.
Or is it?
Right now, I want you to think about your favorite three books (or movies, or TV shows), and then think about the secondary characters in them. Not all of the, but maybe the MC’s best friends. Envision them in your mind. What do they look like? Sound like? How do they behave? Do they talk with an accent, or use particular slang? What’s their job? Do they have a family? Pets? My guess is that you were able to answer all those questions immediately. And that’s because good authors know the value of those secondary characters.
I’m struggling with this right now, so it’s a good thing for me to think about, too! So let’s look at some secondary characters from some of my favorite books, and see what they do and why they’re memorable.
1.) Cookie Kowalski, from Darynda Jones’ Charlie Davidson series. I picture Cookie immediately, because Darynda Jones does such a great job of describing her from the get-go. She’s divorced with a 12-year old daughter who may or may not be psychic. She has a crush on Charlie’s uncle. She reads romance novels. She’s smart and efficient, and slightly overzealous when it comes to protecting Charlie. She’s Charlie’s secretary/researcher/coffee maker. She provides Charlie with the information she needs to close cases (sometimes), and she knows Charlie is really the Grim Reaper. So she also fulfills the role of Secret-Keeper. 🙂
2.) Pretty Much Everybody, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I know, I know, it’s not fair when there are movies, but the entire reason we connect to those movies is because Rowling did such a masterful job of detailing ALL of her secondary characters! How many of us bawled out eyes out when (spoiler alert!) Dobby died? And Fred? And Sirius? We knew exactly what the Weasley family was like, and we’d recognize Hermione and her bushy hair anywhere. Plus, think how much help Harry gets from his secondary characters. Who provides all the knowledge? Hermione. Who’s there fighting alongside him? Ron. And Dobby. And Fred and George. And Ginny. You can do a LOT worse than to study how Rowling creates her secondary characters and utilizes them.
3.) Lord John Grey, from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I hated John when I first met him! Today, I can’t fathom why. I know what he looks like — that blond hair, those gray/blue eyes. He’s tall, but not as tall as Jamie. He carries himself like an aristocrat. He rides well. He’s smart and self-deprecating and fiercely protective of those he loves. Because of this, he takes in Jamie’s illegitimate son and raises him as his own. But he has his own secrets and his own conflicts. We know his entire backstory. Gabaldon even devoted a series of novellas just to him.
4.) Again, Pretty Much Everybody from Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series. Butcher, like Rowling, has a knack for developing secondary characters that help drive the plot forward, while at the same time becoming people readers care about. And they constantly surprise us. They evolve and grow along with Harry, adapting to new circumstances, living their own lives (and sometimes, losing their lives).
5.) Dani O’Malley, from Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series. She’s fourteen. She gets on my nerves sometimes. She’s superfast. She has red, unruly, curly hair and freckles. Her favorite word, apparently, is “pissily,” and if she says it one more time, I will reach through the page and slap her. She doesn’t know her own limits, her ego is the size of China, and she’s sarcastic and alone and prefers it that way. She is the perfect foil for MacKayla Lane, in other words.
And sometimes, that’s what a secondary character needs to be — a foil.
Secondary characters need to perform different roles. Some, like Hermione and Ron, are there to support your MC in everything that he does. Some, like Lord John Grey, perform more complex roles. And sometimes, like Dani, they change roles. Your secondary characters must be as alive and vibrant as your MC. They must have lives that don’t necessarily revolve around your MC. They aren’t there just for ‘hero support.’ They’re there to drive the plot forward as well.
Does your MC have to do everything? Sometimes we think they do! But how much research did Harry Potter ever really do on his own? Virtually none. Hermione was there to give him the answers. Don’t be afraid to give your secondary characters something to do. Make them an expert in something the MC needs to know. Put them at cross-purposes with your MC. Think about the world your MC inhabits. If they’re a detective, then they will be interacting with police officers, coroners, reporters, victims, perpetrators, clients. If your MC is dealing with the supernatural, what sort of creatures will they encounter? If she’s a historian, she’ll deal with librarians, other researchers, archivists, private collectors, students, professors. Now. Of these, which step forward (in your mind) as potentially great secondary characters? Flesh them out just as you would your MC. Know them as well as you would your MC, especially if they’re going to be recurring in a series.
Like I said, I’m learning this the hard way. But I am learning it. So I’m going to be learning much more about my secondary characters over the next month or so. Hopefully, if you need to, you will be, too. 🙂
Here’s some online articles about creating memorable secondary characters:
A few weeks ago I went to the site of the 101 Ranch, south of Ponca City, OK, to do some photography. I hadn’t been there in several years. It’s a strange place — there’s so little left, yet you almost feel you can slip through a crack in time there.
Something about this one — that single shadow of the gate, I think — creeps out everyone.
The windows of the old blacksmith shop, overlooking the yard. The sun was out of the south, casting fantastic shadows across the window-well.
How many times do we, as writers, hear this: the first line of your book is the most important thing you will ever write.
Wow. That’s heavy. That makes you almost not want to start writing. It also makes you agonize over those words. Ripping them apart at the seams, reassembling them. Is this really what I want to say? Is this really the first impression I want readers to have of my character? Is this going to grab someone by the throat and never let them go?
I’m not sure I’ve ever written a great first line. For me, the key is to just get something down. Worry about the rest of it later. In fact, author Philip Margolin said that he once rewrote the first page to one of his books more than 20 times before he was satisfied with it. But he didn’t worry about it in the beginning. If he had, who knows if he’d ever have written the rest of the book?
Can you remember the first line to your favorite book? Word for word, perfectly? I’m not sure I can. I have a lot of favorite books. But can I remember the first lines off the top of my head? No. So let me go to the bookshelf . . . aha. Now. Let’s see if they’re any good:
- “It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.” Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
- “‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.” Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising
- “I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual.” Jim Butcher, Storm Front
- “Everybody wants to know how I did it.” Kin Platt, Sinbad and Me
- “Mr. and Mrs. Dusley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Hmm. Not bad. Cooper’s is clunky; starting off with dialogue is always tricky, particularly in this case because we have zero base of reference and because James isn’t even the protagonist of the novel. But the rest do provoke questions. Why is the mailman half an hour early? Is that sinister? Why are the Dusleys so proud to be normal — and is that status going to be threatened soon, maybe by the appearance of a not-normal nephew? 🙂
Can I remember some first lines off the top of my head, even though they don’t belong to favorite books? YES. For example:
- “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Of course, this is from Pride and Prejudice.
- “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” The Metamorphosis — definitely not my favorite story, but that line! The problem with this line is that Kafka never delivers on the answers. We never learn how poor Gregor became a bug, just how miserable his life is now that he’s become one.
The American Book Review compiled a list of their top 100 best opening lines from novels: http://americanbookreview.org/100bestlines.asp I admit, I don’t agree with them all. “Call me Ishmael” is their #1? I don’t like this line. Never have. It provokes no questions in me whatsoever. Still, there are plenty of others on the list that do intrigue me.
- #8: ” It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, 1984 (1949). Clocks striking thirteen? Where does that happen? When? The reader is instantly beset with questions, which can only be answered if they keep reading.
- The same is true for this one: “124 was spiteful.” —Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987) Does she mean the literal number 124? Is 124 a name? A door? A room? A date? Readers instantly want to know.
- This one, too: “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” —David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) In the beginning? What does he/she do after that? Messages for whom? About what?
A great first line has that quality. It makes you want to keep reading. It creates questions that demand to be answered.
Most of the first lines I like best are short and to the point. But the first line of I, Claudius, is much longer:
- ” I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.” —Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)
This one does provoke questions, of course – but more importantly, this line gives us Claudius’ personality and voice. We know we’re going to have a sympathetic, yet strong, character to follow. We know the setting. We know the time period. We’re not really beset with questions — but we are curious to know more about Claudius and how he’s acquired all these nicknames and titles. 🙂
Generally, I don’t think you can write the first line of your novel until you’ve written the rest of it. I’m not even sure that you can write the first page of your novel until the rest is done — in large part because you may find your true Page 1 is stuck somewhere near Chapter 4. (Been there, done that.) It’s a challenge and an art. But maybe if we take some time to study some really good first lines, we can get a sense of what ours should be.
For the past few weeks – in between many other things – I’ve been going over the book I wrote last spring. It’s gone through 21 revisions already.
I have two chapters left. The climax and denouement. That’s it. Two more to finish reading and revising. So I sat down last night to get them done. Just another 30 pages or so, and I can get started on putting the revisions to work.
So I picked up the manuscript and started reading . . . and ten minutes later, threw it down in disgust and got up to do laundry instead. Epiphany Time had arrived.
My books sucks.
Is there a time in every writer’s life when they stare at the mess they’ve created, rather like Dr. Frankenstein, and say “Ye gods, what have I done? What have I done?” (Imagine enraged, desperate scream to the heavens echoing from stone walls here.) A time when the doubts come marching in?
I hope so, because I am so there.
To be fair, I do this all the time, with almost every manuscript. Well. No. To be fair, I actually don’t. It’s just this urban fantasy series. What about it is so infuriating? What about it makes me incapable of writing it to any façade of satisfaction? I have no idea. What I know is that I get to a place where I’m happy with it, I send it to my betas, they review it and send it back to me, and then . . . when I start on the revisions, I realize that It Sucks.
I have plenty of other novels sitting on my hard drive that don’t do this to me. They’re good. They were early novels, but there are things about them I love. The writing, the characters. The fact that they move forward. That they have plots. That my characters develop over time.
Yeah. I’m starting to see the problem with the current novel.
The fact is, the doubts march in only when they’re needed. Sort of like gargoyles. Gargoyles only come to life when they’re needed to combat evil. Doubts are there for a reason: to let us know that all is NOT right with the world we’ve created. I take heart from that. Gargoyles might look damned scary as they swoop down on you (though I admit, I’ve never really seen this, so I’m guessing here), but in the end, they’re there to save the day. Doubts must be the same way, right?
I’ve realized quite a few things about this novel in the last couple of weeks.
- Some chapters need to be rearranged.
- Some need to come out altogether.
- I need a plot that actually goes somewhere, but to have that, I have to have characters who are actually willing to do something. Right now, I don’t. So the plot doesn’t progress.
- Although I adore most of my secondary characters, I’m having trouble with my MC, Erin, and the primary “mover” in the book, a girl named Rebecca. Rebecca doesn’t do much, either, and the truth is, I don’t even really like her.
- My secondary plot lines are great, but my main one is virtually nonexistent.
- Rebecca’s biggest problem is a guy named Seth, who only shows up in the last scene.
Maybe most damning of all, I am not familiar with my setting. I’ve never been to England. I want to. I’m dying to. But without having been there, how can I write about it with any conviction? I can’t describe the streets and buildings, or the route Erin takes to university every day, or the shops. I can’t put her in a convincing setting.
But what I think I hate most about it is that it seems so superficial. Like my characters are skating on top of ice, when they really need to be swimming in the depths below. There are moments when I feel them beginning to fall through the ice and get to those dark depths, but those moments are too few and too far between.
Is it fixable? Maybe. Will it need extensive rewrites? Absolutely. Have I got other things to be doing? Yup. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up yet. But the doubts have definitely – and thankfully – marched in. Now, I need to listen to them.
New blog post from YA author Debra Dockter —
Right now, I’m supposed to working on rewrites of a novel I promised I would have to my agent before January 1st. Well, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m not quite done, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about why we write.
Some say writers write because they have to. Because we’re wired with so many thoughts and emotions that if we don’t release them, we’ll explode, but instead of our bloody guts oozing down walls and clinging to the ceiling fans, it will be emotions — happy faces, sad faces, anguish like even Van Gogh couldn’t capture — painted on the walls and the ceilings.
I don’t know if I totally agree with that theory, although I love the romanticism of it. The idea that no matter what, we writers will find the strength and the courage to write.
Knowing why we do something is important…
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