Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Secondary Characters

The story I’m writing has a pretty big cast. Part of it was on purpose. Something wipes out their hometown (population 23) and I just couldn’t bring myself to kill everyone. Call me soft.

Part of it was because they insisted on being there. This is the first story I’ve written where the characters feel so alive to me. So, in the beginning, while I was stressing that all these characters were going to trip over each other, they were very adamant about being alive.

What could I do?

But having all these people milling around has created difficulties. Here are some complications I’ve found both from writing a large cast and from other stories I’ve read with big casts.

1) Keeping them distinct – Characters have specific characteristics. If they don’t appear separate of each other enough or if they’re too similar, they blend together. It can be confusing for a reader if they aren’t different enough. Worse, it can be boring for a reader. And we all know we don’t want to bore a reader.

2) Their subplots become distracting – I’ve read some series with large casts where the author spends so much time in secondary characters’ points of view that I found myself thinking, “Please get back to the story!” As a writer, I’ve tried to remember that and spend only the most necessary amounts of time in my secondary characters’ heads.

3) TOO much action - I’ve had lots of action scenes in this book. If I focus on every single person, there’s so much going on, it’s like a Michael Bay movie on crack. Even my ADD hurt. I had to be very conscious of whose POV I was in and only give what was going on for them.

Have you written anything with a large cast? What has been your biggest challenge? Do you read stories with large casts? Is there anything about it that you like? That you find irritating?


Terri Osburn said...

A Michael Bay movie on crack. What a great analogy! I'm finding as this series goes on, there are more and more characters who happen to all be in the same scene. I think you're right about how to manage them. Remember whose POV you're in and stay in his/her head.

I also don't like when secondary characters who were primary characters in a former book no longer have the traits that made them unique in their own story. Like they're suddenly cardboard cutouts filling in the background.

So I'm trying extra hard, even though I'm not in that character's POV, to keep their "voices", actions, and behaviors the same.

MsHellion said...

I thought Michael Bay movies were already on crack? No? Wait, I think I'm thinking of Jerry Bruckheimer.

I'm not sure if I've had a cast of 1000's yet...I do well if I allow my characters to have parents in the book. And I tend to have secondary characters who hog the spotlight, like some sort of demonic Captain Jack Sparrow.

It IS a challenge though; and I think it's a positive sign about HOW ALIVE these characters feel to you and on the page, so in a slightly blasphemous rewording of a famous line, "If your Muse brought you to it, she'll bring you through it."

Janga said...

I have charts for some of my favorite series that run over many books and many years so that I can keep all the characters and their connections straight. Jo Beverley's August book will be #15 in her Malloren world, and there are two decades separating the publication of the first book in the series and the fifteenth. Robyn Carr's Virgin River series has a shorter publication history, but there are eighteen books and two novellas in the series plus characters from an earlier trilogy who appear in the VR books. I value those series enough to make charts, I'm not willing to do that for every series. I'd like to see more trilogies and quartets and fewer series that run indefinitely.

I say I have a cast of thousands in my trilogy, which is an exaggeration, but I have many characters. I do limit pov to only a handful. I think one difference in small-town books is that even the most insignificant character has to have a name and a personality. The clerk at the post office can't be generic because in small-towns that clerk is probably the father of the guy who sat behind the heroine and copied her spelling words in third grade. The clerk is not just going to sell her stamps. He's going to tell her about his new grandbaby and ask about her dad's most recent fishing trip.The heroine sees him; she calls him by name and notices that he's been eating too many slices of the devil's food cake with marshmallow cream icing that his wife is famous for. That's what small towns are like.

Marnee Bailey said...

Ter - I think that give characters that reappear a pass a lot of times. Love changes characters. They're in a different place. Stuff like that. As long as there are flashes of their old self, I'm usually solid.

Hells - That's exactly what I mean about them stealing the spotlight. There are a couple in this story who are very very clear to me. They make so much sense that it's hard sometimes not to just hang out with them. It's been tough to pull back and force myself to only write the parts that are important.

Janga - I love how you explain this. Yes, small towns are just like that. I grew up in a town just like this. A town where even now, ten + years after I've left, I go home and people stop me and ask about my mom and stuff, tell me gossip. It's a very interesting phenomenon. Where I live, it's suburban but we're only right outside of PHilly. People mostly keep to themselves. Now that the kids are getting involved in things, it's a little better, but I remember feeling very alone in the beginning, despite being surrounded by people. In a small town, you're NEVER alone. LOL

Maureen said...

Yer a softie. Ya should a' wiped out the town, left five or six alive. And two a' them shoulda hated each other.

Oh, well, no, that's my books! Hells bells, I wiped out the entire westcoast in my first book of the Caribbean Spell series...from Mexico to Oregon... GONE! BWAH HA HA!

Okay, I still end up with a bazillion people in 30 books. What do I do? Well, some die off, some are part of the action here but off somewhere else. Terri is right, you have to keep them true to themselves, no matter what book, what chapter, what anything.

How do I do this? I have no idea...

Helpful, ain't I?

All I can say is that it can be done!

P. Kirby said...

My tendency is to have a handful of significant secondary characters, but I have never written anything with a true ensemble cast, yet. I think that's because my characters do talk to, in unique voices -- because I'm CRAZY -- and there's only so much room in my head for the cast. Often my background characters, like the postal clerk Janga mentions above, have distinct personalities or characteristics, even for the brief time they are on stage.

In general, most of stories with large (or larger) casts that I've read are in the fantasy genre, or occasionally, thrillers. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) is the first that comes to mind. The problem I often see with the "huge cast of characters" approach is that it often turns into world building disease, with so many characters that the story loses its focus. Or, maybe it's just that my wee little reader brain can only keep track of so many characters. ;P

Maureen said...

I have this list of my characters. What they do, where they live. I don't go so far as to get into what they look like, I count on my writer memory to handle that when I get to it.

So far, so good!

Marnee Bailey said...

Mo - I actually kill all but five off. There are two that are out of town. So I only killed off 2/3 of the town. And everyone hates Jack. So, I guess maybe I'm right about where you expect me. Are you proud... or disturbed? LOL!!

There are a couple of places in this draft where I think I'll have to go back and make sure people are true to how I envision them. Sometimes I think I just am focusing on other people and neglect one. So I'll have to make sure that's at the top of my edit list. :)

And you keep a list? I wonder if I should do some kind of database. I'm expecting to be with these characters through at least two more books. One story, just going to take a couple more books to finish it up.

Pat - The problem I often see with the "huge cast of characters" approach is that it often turns into world building disease, with so many characters that the story loses its focus. Or, maybe it's just that my wee little reader brain can only keep track of so many characters

I see this too! This is one of my problems with the fantasy genre. I have loves some of these books (I enjoyed Martin's book, I loved Harry Potter's world. I've read Paolini's Eragon books, etc.) But I do get itchy when they spend pages describing stuff. Maybe it's just impatience. As in, Please, dear Writer, just give me the structure, I'll fill in the details. I don't need to know that they have toilet paper stuck in their crack unless it's truly important to their character and the plot.

Marnee Bailey said...

I must add that I love a lot of fantasy books. My above gripe is just a minor detractor from my enjoyment. Just a disclaimer there.

irisheyes said...

Absolutely no help here, Marn. I love a large cast of characters that either support the H/H (cause nobody lives in a vacuum) or eventually have their own book. I have absolutely no idea how to do it correctly. :) I do know that when it is done correctly I cannot put the book(s) down. LOL

I am a series addict! I love all the little interactions that occur - even the ones with the postal worker, the busybody at the checkout counter, the nosy neighbor, the concerned teacher, the eccentric grandparent, etc. etc. Those are sort of inconsequential interactions, but fun just the same. I really love the BFFs and the siblings and the people in the H/H's life who knows them a little better than anyone else. Knows their quirks, fears, strengths, weaknesses and helps the author show them to the reader. Maybe that's why I like a huge cast of characters - it helps the author show characteristics rather than tell.

Marnee Bailey said...

Irish - Maybe that's why I like a huge cast of characters - it helps the author show characteristics rather than tell.

This is sooo true! I hadn't thought of the pros (I'm too engrossed in the difficulties right now LOL!!). But having the H/H interact with others gives you perspectives that you wouldn't have had. :)