A good story is made up from a host of elements that when jumbled together and skillfully molded become a glorious whole – just like Dixie Jewett’s fabulous horse. Plot, setting, theme, writing style and characters all must blend to make the whole pleasing. Being an omnivorous reader (yes, even when I’m not editing) I am happy with a plot driven or an action driven story, but I am smitten by a character driven tale. Reading a character driven novel is like crashing a party and making the acquaintance of new and fascinating people.
The main characters always have some attraction otherwise they wouldn’t support the story and make the reader care. Who couldn’t be enthralled by bossy Elizabeth Bennet and the steely D’Arcy, or Scarlett and Rhett? And then there’s Hannibal Lector, the very pinnacle of evil yet more compelling than a ten-ton magnet. Depending on how the story is structured we can learn their history upfront, or it is revealed through out the narrative, but there is always enough time and story space to make that all-important emotional connection through, not just history, but mannerisms, speech patterns, and motivations.
It is the secondary characters – the extras, if you will – that are often the most colorful component of great novels. Dickens’ genteelly mad Miss Haversham, du Mauier’s chilling Mrs. Danvers. Creating a supporting cast that adds a glint of darkness, a spark of humor or a touch of humanity to a story. Beyond helping to create a personality in a novel, this supporting cast is also critical to fleshing out the setting – you know you’re in NYC when your hero is depressed and seeks the ever freely given advice of street smart Dominick De Luca at his World Famous Hotdog cart. You feel you’re in San Francisco when the hero hears the Powell Street cable car and hops on to her morning repartee with Phillip the droll veteran conductor.
Secondary characters can be tools to move the action forward. If your protagonist needs to be placed in a situation that is out of character for her, use a secondary character to get her there. For instance, the contrary but kind old Mr. Kronke is Mia’s downstairs neighbor to whom she can never say no. Too ill to act on his passion for the horses Mia agrees to deliver his bet to the shady off license where she stumbles into a handsome man and so meets the hero.
Finally, supporting characters make great sounding boards to help the main characters work out internal conflict. Think about the key role lively dialog with the saucy office receptionist might play, or a hip bartender. Dithering Aunt Renada, for instance, is far more compelling than your main character’s long internal dialogue.
Just remember that you, the author, are creating a whole world and you must populate it. Your cast of characters can be useful, colorful, thoughtful, wicked, wise or witty but they should never be boring. Look at the world around you, note all the people you come in contact with, and you will have all the inspiration you need to create fantastic and memorable characters.
With a BA in Anthropology and English I pursued a career in advertising and writing and segued into developmental editing. It was a great choice for me. I love the process of creating and am privileged to be part of that process for so many great voices — voices both seasoned and new.
I’ve worked on nearly 400 books over 20 years, books by noted authors published by New York houses including Penguin, Kensington, Pentacle and Zebra as well as with Indie bestsellers and Amazon dynamos. From Air Force manuals and marketing materials to memoirs, thrillers, sci fi and romance, my services range from copyediting to developmental coaching.
Having worked in advertising and marketing, I am always cognizant of the marketplace in which the author’s work will be seen. I coach for content and style with that knowledge in mind in order to maximize sales and/or educational potential. My objective is to help the author’s material stand out from an ever more crowded and competitive field.
E.B. White (co-author of Elements of Style) said, “An editor is a person who knows more about writing than writers do but has escaped the terrible desire to write.”
OK, I’m certainly not E. B. White but I am an editor and I’ve worked with writers of every genre for 20 challenging and enriching years. There is nothing more exciting than helping a writer move through the process of writing. With no skin in the game I can be objective about where a story has taken a wrong turn, hear a particular turn of phrase or a plot point that doesn’t ring true, see inconsistencies in characterization — and spot the typos and those pesky homophones that get overlooked to the great peril of publication. I ask the hard questions, I offer possible solutions. It’s a grand give and take.
You’re a writer. Your head is filled with bits of story: the perfect setting — a women watches in her rear view mirror as the wedding cake dumped on the highway recedes in the distance. A character — Mistress Renfrew is overly tall and awkward and harbors a secret passion for Lord Dumfrey’s collection of assassin’s knives. Odd events — the deadly rivalry for Miss Abundance at the Apple Valley fairground, a lake in summer, tidbits of history, the perfect love triangle ripe for explosion. But where to start? How to corral all those creative bits into a cohesive whole?
One method: start with a simple premise.
Can you express the premise of your book succinctly? If you can write the essence of your story in as few as fifteen words you are on the road to writing a novel. What happens next? The plot will come from the premise.
It’s the way you dress up that simple premise, populate it and move it forward in narrative form that makes the story emerge. Starting from a succinct premise gives you a foundation on which to build a great story. Whether it’s the characters that drive the action or action that drives the characters, the premise provides the blueprint to keep the work moving forward.
The premise should be carved in stone, but only as long as it supports the creative effort. Stone can be reshaped; Michelangelo did it all the time and look at those results.
Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned writer I look forward to sharing On Writing again here at A Slice of Orange to explore methods, tools and tricks of writing that can help your story shine.
As if Olivia Merriman doesn’t have enough to do in her beloved town of New Moon Beach, now her grouchy great-grandmother has recruited her to head up their coven of witches; her sisters are miffed, the coven is pushing her to accept the job, and to top it all off an evil wizard is messing with her love life. More info →