The Supporting Cast

cross blogI finally have the first draft of my new novel in. Hurray! Now I can get back to regular blogging. This week I’m discussing a story’s supporting cast with friend and writing mentor Sydney Smith.

When I told my agent that I was writing a sweeping historical saga, the first thing she did after asking about my main characters, was to ask about my secondary characters and subplots. We all lead lives surrounded by family, friends, mentors, bosses, competitors and even enemies. Main characters are no different. I give my top-level secondary players their own character arcs – ongoing personal struggles that form sub-plots running alongside the major one, adding complexity and depth.

My rule for these secondary character arcs is that they must support and supplement the main action. Challenging the protagonist for example, or getting them into trouble. Helping them learn lessons or see things from different points of view. Their arcs must conclude before or at the same time as the main plot.

catch-22A good example can be found In Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The main plot concerns U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Yossarian’s attempt to avoid dying in World War II. A subplot develops around mess hall officer Milo Minderbinder’s rise as the king of a black-market food selling operation. It provides countless connections and reflections on the main plot.

SYDNEY:-
Gawd, it’s been decades since I read Catch-22. I don’t recall Minderbinder at all, though I remember Major Major because of his unfortunate name and his role as victim and loser extraordinaire. He looked like Henry Fonda, I recall.

Yes, I agree with all that you say about secondary characters. I would add only that a secondary character must want something, have a goal they pursue, a problem they work on. That gives shape and direction to their character arc. That goal must interfere in some way with that of a main character. The intersection points are places where the conflict detonates into action.

I find that new writers do everything possible to limit their secondary characters. If they build up those characters into vital players in the narrative, the writer’s job suddenly becomes more complicated. Writing a novel is hard work. But in fact, while getting your secondary characters to add vitality to the story increases your work – you have to think about them and how they affect the main action – it also fills in that blankness that surrounds these characters. All new writers know what it feels like to have a character but have no idea what they should say or do. The writer gives them things to say, actions to perform, but it’s unsatisfying. A puzzle surrounds the secondary character, a puzzle that is solved when you give them a problem to solve in pursuit of a goal. Suddenly, the character has direction and meaning in the story. Suddenly, the writer feels energised in their relationship with that character. It’s like a character who was mute opens their mouth and speaks.

JENNY:-
secondary-charactersYes, characters need to clash. Your protagonist is desperate for a baby? Give her best friend an unwanted pregnancy. Protagonist wants to breed dingoes? Have her neighbour breed sheep. Protagonist policewoman has been raped? Have her boss assign her to the sexual assault squad. Protagonist is scared of water? Have her mother need rescuing from a flood. It’s easy when you get the hang of it.

Some other tips. Give your supporting character quirks, to make them instantly recognizable. Maybe they’re the witty one, or the forgetful one, or the funny side-kick. Maybe they’re a taxi driver who always gets lost.

Know their back story. Help readers understand the relevance of the supporting character by providing a few details about their life. This ties in with giving them their own character arc.

And most important of all, know what their function is in relation to your main character. Are they friend or foe? Are they a mirror or foil to the main character, showing contrasting choices and behaviours. Are they a false ally—seeming to help the main character while actually pursuing their own agenda? Understand this function before you start writing them.

SYDNEY:-
supporting-characters-2I go with everything you say, Jenny, except the last bit. The imagination needs time to brew on characters and story. I find in the work of my students that a character might appear in draft after draft but their purpose in the story is unclear. I never advise a writer to get rid of a character who doesn’t appear to have a purpose in the story, or advise them to foist a purpose onto that character. I work closely with the writer’s imagination and trust it the way I trust my own – even when the student doesn’t! Given time, the imagination will work out what this character is doing in the story. If the character is obstinate in maintaining a foothold despite their apparent lack of purpose, it will turn out that they have a vital function in the story, one that spins the story into the stratosphere. I love it when that happens.

Some Thoughts On Character Arc

cross blogI am madly writing in order to reach a deadline for my new novel, so my blog has been neglected lately. But there’s always time for some thoughts on craft, especially when in the throws of finishing a novel. Today, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I talk about character arcs.

 

SYDNEY:-
A character arc is the journey a character takes through the course of a story, from someone whose actions and decisions are shaped by their internal antagonist (also known as their character flaw), to someone who has modified or overcome their internal antagonist and is rewarded with the thing or person they most want in the world.

Mr DarcyMr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is a good example. He begins the story being proud and disdainful of others, judging people on their social standing, and ends by having a more open and accepting attitude. His reward is marriage to the woman he loves.

In The Last Coyote, by Michael Connelly, Harry Bosch’s internal antagonist is his refusal to accept that he is having a mental breakdown which is endangering the welfare of himself and others. Through the course of his investigation into the murder of his mother many years ago, he is confronted with the consequences of his reckless refusal to acknowledge that he is dangerous. His actions bring about the torture and murder of his supervising officer. By the end of the novel, he has acknowledged his flaw and has changed it. His reward is the solution to his mother’s murder.

The important thing to note is the vital role of the internal antagonist. If the character has no internal antagonist to overcome, they cannot change. They will be at the end of the story the same person they were at the start. Their circumstances will be different. But they themselves will not be different. They will not have learned an important lesson about themselves. They will not have been tested and will not have met that challenge.

JENNY:-
ScroogeWhen planning my character arcs, I focus on the personal lie the protagonist lives by. What false belief about himself and/or the world is causing his life to be unfulfilled?This fundamental misconception can take many forms, but it must be deep-seated – influencing the character’s every thought and action. Usually it can be simply stated in a sentence. For example, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge believes a man’s worth is based on how much money he makes. In Schindler’s Ark, Schindler believes it is okay to exploit other people for profit. In Toy Story, Woody believes that his worth only lies in being the favourite. In Jane Eyre, Jane believes the only way to earn love is by serving other people.

The lie is born of a wound in the character’s past. Barely realised at first, it acts as an obstacle to achieving his goals. I always identify this lie right at the beginning. It becomes the foundation for planning the character’s transformative journey.

SYDNEY:-
Character FlawThat’s an interesting take on the issue of internal antagonist, Jenny. Some people put it that way, as a lie the character tells themselves, or a secret they keep from themselves. Whichever way the writer phrases it to themselves, the vital thing is that they understand ths aspect of character and the role it plays in the story as a whole.

As a teacher and manuscript assessor, I have seen how writers avoid this whole concept of internal antagonist. They desperately want their character to be liked, and believe the best way to achieve that is by making them free of this kind of character flaw. But that is death to a character. Readers want to identify with flawed people. The great stories in literature show that the flawed characters are the ones we love and who endure.

So I look for ways to help writers get around that fear of making their character flawed and unlikeable. Sometimes, it’s simply the way it’s expressed. I thinking referring to the internal antagonist as a lie or a secret is a good way of doing that. I’ll have to use it in future!

One Character, Two Conflicting Goals

by Peacewolf Creations

by PeaceWolfCreations

Stories need conflict, we all know that. Usually this comes about via a protagonist and antagonist with opposing goals. One man wants to win the battle and another man wants to stop him. This is the simplest version. But what about when opposing goals are contained within the same person? This happens when a character desperately wants two things that are mutually exclusive. It echoes life, and allows for rich characterisation when the choice is finally made. Readers really feel for a hero in the throes of this kind of tortured inner turmoil. If done well, the readers themselves become torn in two directions. They take sides, change their minds, feel the frustration. It’s an unbeatable recipe for a page-turning read, and the engine room of many popular novels.

Anna KareninaConflicting goals lie at the heart of Anna Karenina. Anna wants both her adulterous lover Vronsky and her child. In nineteenth century Russia she can’t have both. Will she follow her burning passion whatever the cost? Or will she return to a safe, suffocating marriage for the sake of her child? She chooses Vronsky. Her choice destroys their love and leads to ultimate disaster. Tolstoy uses action, thoughts, dialogue and backstory to emphasise the pull of these conflicting goals. They seem equally matched, until the fatal choice is made.

  • Other well-known examples are Twilight by Stephanie Meyer – Bella wants to be with Edward, but she also wants to live.
  • Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen – Jacob wants to keep his job at the circus, but he also wants to protect the elephants
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Hamlet wants to avenge his father by killing the king, but he also wants to fulfil his duty as a prince by protecting the king and the stability of the kingdom
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Katniss wants to win the games so she can live, but if she wins, her friend Peeta will die. She wants him to live too.

internal conflictThe greater the war within, the more compelling your story will be. Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, sets out a good way to create conflicting goals. ‘Ask what does your hero most want in the novel – his story goal. Then ask what’s the opposite of that, or mutually exclusive to it? Give your hero an equally compelling reason to not pursue his goal. He wants both at once, but can’t have them both. The story will play out in how the hero pursues these opposing desires until the conflict is resolved, one way or another.’

Back Story

cross blogTime for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, writing teacher Sydney Smith and I discuss back story. It turns into a very public mentoring session!

SYDNEY –
Back story is that part of a character’s history that explains why they do the things they do in the present of the novel. Back story, when used properly, deepens and enriches a character and our understanding of them.

backstory 1Back story can be introduced or gestured to in a variety of ways. My favourite is when the drama in the present of the novel replays a drama in the character’s past. The character got it wrong back then. They made the wrong decisions and lost something, a relationship usually, that was of enormous value to them. The present of the story is their chance to replay that ancient drama and get it right. For example, in The Killing Lessons, Saul Black’s terrific debut crime novel, Valerie Hart, San Francisco police detective, was almost destroyed by a case she was working on three years ago. This was the abduction, torture and murder of a teenage girl. Valerie was so traumatised that she ruined the relationship that mattered most to her, with Nick Blaskovitch. Three years later, another man is abducting, torturing and murdering women. In particular, he has kidnapped Claudia, an Englishwoman working illegally in the country. Valerie has the chance to replay that old drama and this time rescue the woman. In addition, Nick has come back into her life, he has forgiven her and offers her a chance to start again.

But these replays don’t go smoothly. The killer is hard to find, and someone on her team is trying to wreck any chance she has of getting back together with Nick. The important thing to note in this replay is that you don’t have to go into a lot of detail with the back story. All you need to do is give enough information for the reader to understand this is a replay drama and the present of the novel will do the rest.

JENNY –
backstory 2Well, this is certainly a salient topic for me. I’m halfway through my new manuscript, and am dealing with the fraught issue of back story. How to introduce it? How much is too much, and how soon is too soon? I want to add in my character Taj’s history, and significant events that happened to him before the start of the book. The story behind the story, so to speak. Introducing it subtly and seamlessly is hard. Too often I’ve seen writers fall prey to the dreaded information dump. Big slabs of history slow stories and bore readers.

There are four main ways to add back story. By flashback (a worthy blog topic by itself, I think, Sydney), by dialogue, by recollections or by a narrative summary of the past. This last one is telling, not showing, but it’s the way I’m currently doing it―drip-feeding instalments of my character’s history. I’m unsure about it. The big reveal, showing the connection of past with present, will happen with dialogue―a deep and meaningful between my two main characters. But I want to lead up to it with a few short passages of exposition, scattered through previous chapters. What do you think, Sydney?

SYDNEY –
It can be tricky to know the best way to deal with a complex back story. Some writers think there are hard and fast rules about it―no flashbacks, for example. I tend to think a novel will have its own ideas about how best to introduce back story. You just have to listen to what it’s telling you.

But if the novel isn’t speaking intelligibly on the subject, the best thing to do is try out different ways of doing it and see which one works best. You don’t have to get it right the first time.

backstory 3You and I have talked about Taj, Jenny. It seems to me his back story is vitally important to the reader’s understanding of this character, why he’s ended up where he has and why he has the special gift he possesses―a gift that has an enormous impact on the other main characters in the story. Since he’s isolated in the first chapters and unable to tell his back story to Kim, the main protagonist, then the story has to step in and tell it in the form of flashbacks. Yes, it is a topic all by itself. The clue to doing flashbacks well is to tell a parallel story through them, one with a protagonist who has a goal to pursue and a problem to overcome. It seems to me that you’ve got some of this with Taj. Making the flashbacks tell a story will hook the reader in. That’s what stories are meant to do. If it doesn’t, then I suggest the problem is with the hook, not with the story itself.

I think writers can get tangled up with the idea that back story happened at a time before the present of the story opens, and therefore, that it has only a tenuous link with the present. It’s true that it does take place outside the time scheme of the main plot. But if the back story is too big to be dealt with in a bit of exposition here and there, then you need to approach it in a different way.

If you think about it, when a novel has several POVs, each of those POVs tells a story. Put all these stories together and you get a complex novel. For example, The Killing Lessons uses several POVs: that of ten-year-old Nell, of Angelo, a man grieving for the loss of his wife, Valerie Hart, a detective on a serial murder case, Xander, the killer himself, and Claudia, to name most, though not all of them. The story doesn’t slow down when it shifts POV. The reader is vitally engaged with all of them. All these POVs has a story to reveal, and all are loosely connected one way or another to the main plot, the hunt for a serial killer. A big back story that can’t be summarised in a bit of exposition is like that―it’s part of the tapestry of the whole novel, it’s connected to the main plot, it involves one, sometimes, more, of the important players in the larger story.

So when a writer has a big back story to reveal, the first thing to do is think of it not as a problem but as a storyline. There might be a problem with your back story, Jenny, but the problem isn’t that it’s back story. The problem is structural. Where do you place the scenes before the big reveal?

Also, because you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, Jenny, try not to think you have to do a big reveal. You don’t. You can write the scenes, place them in the order you think works best, and see where that gets you. Nothing is set in stone at this stage. You’re still working through the first draft. Allow yourself to experiment. If after you’ve done that you still think a big reveal is important, then you’ve got everything you need in order to bring it about. All you have to remember is that Taj’s back story must obey the rules of front stories―that is, they have to show a protagonist working on a problem in pursuit of their goal.

As a mentor, I get a lot of people telling me they don’t know how to do a thing―how to weave in different POVs, for example, how to shift time levels. The problem isn’t really of craft. The problem is that the writer tells themselves, I can’t do this. Or they tell themselves that what they want to do breaks the rules of narrative, but they know they have to do it. Putting in a lot of back story is supposed to break the rules of narrative. It doesn’t. All you have to do is change the way you think about it and you’ll find a solution.

JENNY –
Wow, Sydney, that is such fantastic counsel! I don’t have a problem with Taj’s back story. The way I’m weaving it in works. My problem is just as you say―I’m concerned it breaks, or at least stretches, the rules of narrative. Taj has a fabulous story to tell. Instead of second-guessing myself, it’s time to get on with telling that story the best way I know how. I’ll evaluate my method later.

Thank you so much, Sydney. I feel completely liberated by your advice. Guess that’s what good mentoring is all about. Who would have thought I’d learn so much from my own post! 🙂

BB14

 

Narrative Voice

Narrative Voice 1I’m thirty thousand words into a new project. This is typically the point for me where a novel starts to find its feet, and this time is no different. The characters are becoming real to me, finding their own voices.

In my view, there is nothing more mysterious in this writing game than the development of a character’s narrative voice. This isn’t necessarily the same as the author’s own voice, although it can be. I researched some definitions. Wikipedia says this:

‘The narrative voice describes how the story is conveyed: for example, by “viewing” a character’s thought processes, reading a letter written for someone, retelling a character’s experiences.’

The Editor’s Blog puts it like this.

‘Narrative voice is the look and feel and sound of story as it’s relayed through writer, narrator, and viewpoint character. So, yes, it’s tone and style. But it’s also attitude.  And it’s focus—what does the narrator point out and what is ignored?  And it includes the method through which that look and feel and sound are conveyed to the reader—through thoughts or letters or the direct report of events. And it includes the distance and relationship between narrator and the people and events he is watching. (A narrator may be aloof and observational or up close in the thick of the action.)’

Narrative Voice 2So … trying to define and explain narrative voice, is a bit like trying to nail down a shadow. Nevertheless, a point-of-view character must have one. It’s not helpful to regard voice development as a magical thing, that fortuitously appears in a puff of purple smoke.

My work-in-progress is in third person, with two viewpoint characters narrating the story. They come complete with their own baggage and biases, strength and flaws. How can I convincingly speak for them? How to prevent them from all sounding the same – or worse still – from all sounding like me? Syntax and diction are important. Devices like verbal tics and idiosyncratic turns of phrase are useful, as long as they’re not overdone. (Have you ever tried to make sense of Joseph’s Yorkshire dialect in Wuthering Heights?) However these are purely adjustments made around the edges. They don’t by themselves create a distinctive voice.

Some people write detailed summaries in order to get to know their characters. They know what their characters had for breakfast last Sunday. They know them better than their own wives and husbands. I’m not one of those writers.

Narrative Voice 3On reflection, what I find most useful is to discover one essential truth about a character – their driving force, their deepest fear, their wound perhaps. Who, in their heart of hearts, do they believe themselves to be? Are they misguided? We all have a fundamental, core belief about ourselves that usually remains hidden. Take Clare in Currawong Creek, for example. She mistakenly believes that career success is the only path to self-worth. The driving force for Quinn in Turtle Reef, is the guilt he feels at not measuring up in his father’s eyes, even though his father has feet of clay.

At thirty thousand words in my new manuscript, the two main characters have come to life. I understand the central truths about them, and their unique voices are finally ringing loud and clear.

BB14

Don’t Be A Writer …

Don't be a writerI’m deep into structural edits for my new novel, Billabong Bend, due out next year. The deadline is next week. I’m too busy to blog (already missed last week’s post) so my brother Rod Scoullar has sprung to my rescue. He writes terrific young adult fantasy as a hobby,  and has written a guest post. ‘It can be about anything,’ I said. This is what he came up with … (Love ya Rod x)

“Don’t be a writer.

A writer’s life is hard.  Oh it’s not hard to write – putting words on paper is easy.  It isn’t even that hard to put well written words on paper, words in well structured sentences, words that flow, words that evoke mood or place or situation.  I can do that.  You must do that if you are to be a writer.

Words are not enough though, even well written words.  The reader will weary of the sweetest prose if the plot is inadequate.  Poor characterisation will undermine any story regardless of the beauty of the writing.  Those are areas in which I fall down.  I’m not destined to be a writer; yet it isn’t for that reason.

I see how hard Jenny works.  I see the notebooks, constantly added to, dozens of them, full of words and ideas that might be useful, someday.  I see the effort that goes into the research.  I see the discipline that requires so many words must be written before day’s end.  I see the redrafting, the effort to fashion a scene just so.  I see the frustration when things don’t come together.

Then, when the manuscript is complete, as best it can be given the timeframe – professional writers have to work to deadlines – and sent to the publisher, back come the edits.  “Character X needs greater development early in the manuscript; the relationship between Y and Z should build more slowly; the resolution of the conflict in chapter seven seems contrived, etc.”  Those aren’t comments relating to Jennifer’s current manuscript in case you’re wondering.  Oh, and don’t self-publish without a professional edit.  Professional editors know what they’re about.  Ignore them and their advice at your peril.

I’m not prepared to put in the effort required to be published.  Writing something is easy.  Writing something worthwhile may be possible, but writing and rewriting and rewriting again is too much for me.  I don’t want to be a writer, not desperately.  It might be fun to try but, well, for me it’s all too much.  If you want to be a writer, want it because you can’t imagine yourself as anything else, then go for it; but understand – a writer’s life is hard.”

 

BB2013_Nominee

Donald Maas And The Novelist’s Paradox

Donald MaasI’ve said before what a fan I am of legendary literary agent and author Donald Maas. I first encountered him when reading Writing The Breakout Novel. What a book! Maas outlines the essential elements of a commercially successful novel, including beginning with a defined theme. I’d never thought of doing that before. I’d just hoped a coherent theme would somehow emerge amorphously from the growing manuscript. Now I consciously plan a theme before starting the story.

paradoxBut what I find most interesting, particularly when I’m at the stage of plotting a new book, is his concept of the novelist’s paradox – your story matters more than anything, and your story matters not at all. It matters more than anything because fiction injected with high purpose and high stakes carries more force than fiction that merely seeks to entertain. If it provokes thought and moves our hearts, it will remain in our memory. But an author who lets their story matter too much, may rush past much of its potential greatness. It’s important to relax and take the time to dig deep – deep into your characters’ motivations, conviction and nature. Not taking the story too seriously gives you the freedom to explore these inner journeys. A difficult balancing act!

Writing the breakout novelDonald Maas tips for writing characters that matter to readers:
– Your character matters to someone else. Whom? Why? Find a moment for them to weigh that responsibility and rise to it.
– The conflict means something personal to your character. What? What piece of them would be lost if they fail? How will they become whole if they succeed?
– What’s going on in the scene you’re writing? If it illustrates a larger principle, have your character recognize that.
– Your character is on a personal journey. Seeking what? Finding what instead? What’s already accomplished? What’s left to learn? Put it down on the page.

BB2013_Nominee