Monday, May 25, 2009

Susan's question

Susan asks:

I'm wrestling with my WIP and realized I have a character who's important because of who she is (family member) but has no real wants/needs in the book. Is this a necessary ingredient, or can she earn her spot in the story if she's there as merely an enabler to the other characters? (and now you see why I've been absent from the comments of late!) Thanks... Susan Helene Gottfried

Actually, you probably want to limit the number of characters who have goals and journeys in the book. Yeah, yeah, we're all human, and we're all important, and we all have needs-- but think about real life. I have no doubt that bank teller has problems and goals and a whole life, but I just want her to give me money. She's got a role to play, and her goals and needs just aren't important to me. Sorry. (But if she were to burst into tears, I'd be drawn in and suddenly care. Fortunately, she just cashes my check.)

Who is your protagonist? Okay, now what is this person's relationship or role in relation to the protagonist? If all she does is enable, that's fine. It might be boring, it might not. But if she's distracting us from the protagonist because, I don't know, her newborn needs a donor heart, well, that's a problem. She's not a major character, right? She's there to further the plot in some way. She doesn't even have to be interesting, actually, if her role is limited. For example, say she's the sister-in-law who calls to tell Joe that his father has died, and there's going to be a dispute about the will because dad's trophy wife has vowed to get every penny. Maybe that's the end of her role-- just messenger. But maybe not. If she's married to Joe's brother, obviously she has an interest in the will too. If so, go with it. Is she greedy too? Or is she heartsick for her husband, who is going to lose so much? Or what?

That is, you don't have to invent goals and conflicts. The role will have them sort of pre-ordained for you. If you give a plausible sense of that, you don't really need (probably) this person to have purely personal (not connected with protagonist) goals. Or at least, you don't need to show them usually. So think about who this person is and what her role is. It's probably (in relation to pro) one of these:
1) A motivation (she's his grandmother and he owes her everything and all she wants before she dies is to see his college graduation)
2) A conflict (she's his ex-wife, and they still own a business together, and it's hard to operate a business when there's so much emotional tension)
3) A foil (she's his sister, and they're a lot alike, but she's gone the conventional route and we can see by looking at her how far he's strayed from his affluent roots).

Make sure that you can figure out the naturally occurring conflicts and goals that come with the role. Show that role in operation. That is, don't have her as some business rival (that is, with a built-in conflict) who generously shares with him the information he needs-- she should only do that if it furthers her role as rival somehow (like they form an alliance). IF there's more to it-- like she's fallen in love with him and is betraying her own interests for him-- then she's become more than a roleplayer and yeah, you might need to flesh out her part and make her a major character. If you don't want to do that, go back to the role, and think about what that is, and give her plausible goals and needs and conflicts -- but all within the story. Make her real, but don't make her important.



green_knight said...

The moment a character advances from spear carrier it becomes important for the writer to learn their motivation so the character can act 'in character' consistently. Nothing is more irritating to a reader - at least this reader - than a character who exists only to fix things and give wise advice (I want the protagonist to be active, not run to mommy and get things sorted by someone else). So if she's a cornerstone of the protagonist's life, I need to see more of her than a role; and I need her to have reasons to be supportive, and I would like to see her being wrong, or giving advice that is *not* the best for the protagonist at this point in time.

My take is that if this character has no real wants or needs, the author hasn't looked at them closely enough. If a character is blissfully happy with their own life, they probably want to maintain the status quo - what are they willing to do when change is on the horizon? If they're happy and they love their family, they presumably want their family members to be happy too - do they want everybody to be happy after their pattern or after their own fashion? How does this person cope with the addition of a goth to the family circle? How much support are they willing to give? From 'you must follow your heart' to wanting to fix it, from giving support only if the other party does 'the right thing' to being an enabler and allowing a spoilt child to make mistake after mistake and always bailing them out - there's a lot more to a quiet, content character than carboard 'wise mentor.'

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

It's not a lack of wants/needs, Knight. It's that she's a twin. Vital to the structure, but to the plotline?

That's the rub. As the revision's shaping up (since I sent in the question initially), she's turning into both enabler and foil. The whole family is thrown into quite the quandry, in fact.

It's fun to play with. When I get closer to being done, more outtakes featuring this group will be on the blog.

Edittorrent said...

GK, sure, but there's a limit in every book to how many characters can have journeys. If you're writing a protagonist-centered book, that might be 4-5 people tops. But you can't people most books with so few characters, so there are usually characters between the spear-carriers and major characters.

Yes, in a big book, you can probably flesh them out. But in a smaller book, a whole cast of fleshy characters might take up too much space. Find out who this person is, and show as much of it as is needed. The trick is knowing that there's more than you need to show. Characters can be more realized than appears on the page. Use what you need to use-- but no, I don't think that there's any requirement to show depth and goals and conflicts in every roleplayer, at least in shorter books. But you know, again I think that's a difference between personal (protagonist-centered) novels, and social novels, which examine interactions in a given society or group. You might be writing a more social novel, while I'm more used to writing personal novels, and I do think very likely the level of depth shown in minor characters is different.

Susan, yes, a twin almost has to be a foil. The important issue is how is she different? And how she is different tells something about the protagonist. But the role of twin means something-- explore that.

Julie Harrington said...

In my last WIP, my hero had 2 brothers. They appeared on and off throughout the story and it was nothing extensive.

One brother definitely had a larger part than the other. Their actions in the story, however, played a role in the hero's development, goal, motivation and conflict (GMC). I used them specifically as a thorn in the hero's backside to prompt him to do things, to take action, and find justified in his own mind in taking those actions.

As for the brothers... You knew more about one brother than the other. They were definitely supporting characters in the truest sense (no scenes from their POVs), no real goals (other than one that tied directly into the hero's GMC), no real conflicts. They were only there to prod the hero further along in *his* story.

So for me the secondary characters were very much "accent flavors" used to enhance the core character's journey, goals, motivation and conflicts.


em said...

I think that siblings make good foils, having grown up with three of them:).

Riley Murphy said...

I like Alicia’s idea of real but not too important. And with siblings, I definitely like simple complexities. Maybe she’s everything her twin isn't - that could be good or bad - but it’s your protagonist's story either way so, you never give up the power she needs to propel the story/plot line (which should be hers alone).

I also like the idea of a family dynamic. It is so complex yet everyone understands it. Once it’s introduce, there’s a wealth of insight that instantly enriches your major characters while at the same time works to explain the drives of the secondary characters without the inclusion of too much back story. A few comments followed up with reactions, and readers begin to readily identify with the personality and the role that it plays within the family. It’s like half the work is already done for you.

Susan, it sounds like you’re having fun with it!:)

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I am, Murphy, thanks. I'm having fun with this discussion, too. Getting a lot of ideas -- now to only have the time to implement them properly!

Unknown said...

I love writing about twins. It's like having a character look in the mirror - the image seems the same only it's a reflective opposite.