While she was out, we thought you would like to revisit one of her posts from our archives. Jenny will be back in June with a new post On Writing . . .
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.
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