Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Secondary characters who do too much

This is the advice that gets the most squawks. Let me say first that some stories have a bigger scope than others. If this story is about how a town reacts to a mini-epidemic, then profiling several or even a dozen characters might work just great. (Just make sure each character gives the reader a different perspective on the events… combine characters who are quite similar, like the two elderly men who lose their wives can become one elderly man with one lost wife.) But if you're writing a book not about an ensemble cast, but rather tightly focused on one character or a couple or a protagonist or antagonist, look closely at the scenes involving secondary characters. The secondary-character-who-acts-like-a-primary is, I have to say, all too common in manuscripts, perhaps a holdover from the days when books weren't so narrowly focused. But this kind of character treatment not only takes up space, it makes the protagonist less of a protagonist when someone else commits too many major actions in the plot.

Again, plenty of books have ensemble casts where several characters have near-equal status-- say, four members of a punk band, each with his own journey to make. And if your book is like that, great—just cut down on the OTHER characters' passages. But if your book has one or two central characters, he/she/they should probably be causing most of the plot action. (When it comes to plot-development, the antagonist is often one of the two-three central characters, even if we are never in that viewpoint.) If, for example, the protagonist doesn't confront the external conflict, make mistakes, fix those mistakes, take action, change the course of the plot – at nearly every juncture—is that really a protagonist? Rule of thumb here—the turning point scenes should almost always either result from protagonist action or cause protagonist reaction.

But all too often I see a secondary character, most often the hero's best friend, interestingly enough, doing too much of the protagonist's job. And almost invariably when I point out, oh, that the best friend needs to be throttled down a few notches (during the whole climax, the supposed hero is unconscious, and his wisecracking best friend has to save the busful of schoolchildren, rescue the heroine from the villains, and bring the mayor to justice), the writer will react angrily (my reactions to that reaction in parens):

It has to be this way because the hero gets knocked out (so the god who decided that—the writer—can decide to wake him up).

This is part of the hero's journey, because he has to learn to ask for help (he's not asking for help—he's abandoned the duties of a protagonist).

This is part of the heroine's journey, because she has to learn not to depend on the hero (okay with me, because he's obviously a loser—she should run off with his oh-so-effective best friend, who is the one who has really earned a happy ending).

This is part of the best friend's journey (oh, I'm sorry! I thought this book was about the hero! Let me run off and change the jacket copy to make clear it's about the best friend's journey!).

I have to set up the sequel, where the best friend is going to be the protagonist (and exactly what are you going to do with him in his own book, since he's already done most of the work of the protagonist in THIS book?).

This conception of books as having central characters who do most of the acting and changing is … is too restrictive! (Wait, I have to go email Aristotle and Shakespeare and tell them they got it all wrong.)

You know what the real problem is? The writer loves the secondary character too much, and the main character too little. Yep. Hey, I've been there. I've learned from painful experience that hero's best friend is incredibly seductive and can run off with the book if you let him. Two words for you: Han Solo. And that's fine if the book isn't tightly focused on the hero, and/or if you don't mind demoting the hero (Luke Who?). But be careful of plot incoherence, where the position of Luke indicates he is supposed to be the protagonist, but the plot development actually leads to Han's growing centrality.

Just decide what your book is, and be true to that. If it is a story about the friendship between these two guys, okay, maybe best friend can be a sub-hero. But if it's about the hero overcoming his conflicts, the best friend really can't do that for him. And popular fiction is about internal conflicts being played out in the external realm—that is, the hero can only confront and overcome his conflicts (in pop fiction, not, thank goodness, in real life) by confronting and overcoming some external conflict… and he cannot delegate that duty.

Special note to romance writers and erotica writers: Two men can be lovers. They can even get married now! (Yay, Massachusetts Supreme Court!)

But if this is a romance or an erotic romance between the hero and heroine, make the great love blossom between them. Make their interaction help them together resolve the plot. Too often when there's a hero's-best-friend in there, that becomes the primary love relationship. I've even seen supposedly hetero-romance manuscripts where the hero chooses his best friend over the heroine in some fundamental "love" way (though never, damnit, an INTERESTING way). Male bonding is really intriguing to us ladies (I have never understood how you guys can love each other and insult each other so badly—really, if MY friend called me lardbutt, she would not be my friend for long!), but determine what your central relationship is and focus on that. The hero can certainly, in the start of a romance, trust his best friend more than his lady, but if at the end of the book, the best friend is still taking precedence, methinks the romance has sputtered out somewhere. Or maybe the hero is sublimating his homoerotic affections, and really, that's fine! This is the 21st Century! Come out of the closet and declare your love, guys… just don't tell me that your real love is the heroine sitting there all dejected and rejected.

(Not all male bonding is homoerotic, but careful—men tend not to comment too much on other men's physical attributes, except, as above, in an insulting fashion. If your hero and his best friend are really just friends, how can you show that without making me think that they want to be more?)

Anyway, whenever (just about always) I tell a writer that the secondary characters are too prominent, I get bristled at. For some reason, this is a very delicate issue for many writers. Could that delicacy be an indication that these characters are getting a bit too much love from you? Taking some of your attention off the main characters?

Now, as I said, there are plenty of books with multiple protagonists, group protagonists, ensemble casts. But if you have a tightly focused story type, try being ruthless here. Look at the actions of the secondary characters. Can any of them be transferred to one of the main characters? Can something that is passive for the protagonist be made active? For example, I have seen secondary characters discover a clue and deliver it to the protagonist. Does the protagonist really EARN that clue, if it's just handed over?

I know I wrote an article about this... it had a cool title. Lemme see if I can find it. Ah, yes, buttinskis.



Anonymous said...

As a fellow editor, I completely agree with what you're saying. There is also one other option when the secondary character seems to be taking the protagonist's place: suggest that perhaps that secondary character may make the better protagonist. Perhaps that's what you were hinting at with the "demoting the hero" comment, though?

Natalie Hatch said...

Awww crap Alicia, seriously by the time I'm finished with this manuscript there'll be no friends, no whys or what fors, and the writing will be sublime...
I'm guilty as charged on loving the best mate... damn damn damn. More editing

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Talk about your timely posts!Thank you.

I hope you'll consider taking the opportunity to further discuss secondary characters/couples who may later show up in another book. :)

I'm trying to avoid giving the secondary characters scenes from their own POV. But they each have a hand in setting the protag's physical struggle into motion.

I also love me a well developed villain, the kind that my readers love to hate. :D

Avoiding the POV of secondary players was my first solution. It actually worked for about five minutes. :)

In an emotionally intense story, I had hoped that hearing from the secondary players would give the reader time to breathe and view the protag's plight from another perspective.

Now I'm not so sure, but I'm beginning to see why I love writing novellas so much! My novel ate my life and it's beginning to feel alarmlingly like--*gasp*--work! :)

Kimber Li said...

My secondary characters tend to do this. Notecarding weeds it out, along with a lot of other story flaws I can't otherwise 'see.' Sometimes, they don't go quietly and I have to promise them a sequel in which they're the main characters.

Check out SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder for more on notecarding. www.blakesnyder.com

Dave Shaw said...

Hmm - I haven't done this yet. Not something I should try, I guess. ;-)

As for male bonding, there is an art to exchanging insults so that one shows affection without implying (ahem!) romantic interest. You know how uncomfortable most guys are with that whole homoerotic thing, at least in public.

Edittorrent said...

But in private???

Secondary characters can really support the plot... just not good to have them take it over. :)

Dave Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Shaw said...

Especially in private, now that I think about it. One of the more powerful fears for a typical straight guy (at least in the U.S.) is of another guy coming on to him, whether in public or private. Properly done affectionate insults rarely give that 'he's coming on to me' feeling - trust me.

If you ladies really want to understand American males, you need to read Dave Barry's Guide to Guys. Forget that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus tripe - Dave's the guy who will set you straight. Special benefit for Theresa - if you're still looking for your missing sense of humor, you'll find it in this book. ;-)

Dara Edmondson said...

GUILTY AS CHARGED. Thanks for this post since I'm working on just this dilemma now. My biggest issue is removing the secondary characters from the H/H conflict and letting the lovers duke it out sans intervention;-)