Tuesday Tip

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tip#1Last Tuesday’s tip was about character interviews, which is going to tie into this Tuesday’s tip. Compare the interviews of your secondary characters with your primary character’s interview. Which one is more interesting? If you didn’t answer in favor of your primary, there is a possibility that your secondary characters are stealing the show. Here’s how to spot those pesky spotlight stealers and how to put them back in their place–second place.

Let’s look at a few classic examples of when secondary characters run the show. Most of you are probably old enough to remember Steve Urkel from Family Matters. The nerdy neighbor was only meant to be a one-time gig, but his popularity with the audience won him an appearance on almost every episode. When I was a kid, I didn’t even realize the show was called Family Matters. I thought it was called Steve Urkel. That’s how little the family mattered to me. 

For those of you who don’t remember TGIF (I pity you), you are probably more familiar with Daryl Dixon from the Walking Dead. The silent, arrow-shooting side character is personally my favorite. What’s not to like? He has an interesting backstory, an ongoing conflict with his brother, and the potential for a romance (fingers crossed). In comparison, Rick’s conflicts seem to be wrapped up too quickly or dragged out too long. Who cares if Rick and his family die as long as Daryl lives. Let me know if you see any shirts that say “if Rick dies we riot.”  I thought not.

And who can forget the loveable Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack was a fun relief from the tiresome storyline of Elizabeth Swann and William Turner. Other fans must have agreed, because William and Elizabeth weren’t even in the final movie. Instead, we get an entire movie centered around Jack–except for the dumb side plots (don’t even get me started on the mermaid).

Before you take all the color out of your side characters in an attempt to regain your protagonist’s glory, remember, interesting side characters are not a bad thing. You want your side characters to be sympathetic and have their own arcs, but they shouldn’t shadow the main character.

So how do you know when a character is taking over?

If you answer yes to several of the following:

  • Does you secondary character have several exotic features?
  • Does your secondary character have interesting quirks?
  • Does your secondary character have too many aspirations/conflicts?
  • Are they really fun to write? By this, I mean do you write most of your scenes from their perspective instead of your protagonist’s viewpoint?

Remember, your protagonist is your primary character. Primary means FIRST. Secondary means SECOND. Now, let’s keep them in order. If your protagonist is standing in the shadow, here’s how to pull them back into the light.

  • Your primary character should be the one with the most at stake. If your main character fails, does he/she lose more than the secondary character? If not, you might want to up the ante. The main character should have more conflicts or at least greater conflicts than the side characters. If the side character teams up with your primary to obtain lost treasure, the main character should be after something more precious than gold. Arguably Pirates of the Caribbean did this well. William Turner wants to rescue Elizabeth Swann from the Pirates. Jack simply wants his boat back. A person is worth more than a boat …ship.
  • The protagonist, not a side character, should be responsible for the resolution of conflict. This means the protagonist destroys the villain or instigates the outcome. Does the protagonist always defeat the bad guy? Not necessarily. Let’s look at Gladiator and Braveheart. In Braveheart, William Wallace doesn’t defeat the villain directly. The king dies of an illness. Heck, he doesn’t even make it to the end of the movie, but his followers are so inspired by his sacrifice they charge the battlefield to win their freedom. Likewise, in Gladiator, Maximus defeats the villain (10 points for villain conflict resolution), but it is ultimately Senator Gracchus who will reinstate the senate and bring Rome back to glory. In both these examples, the heroes die before the end, but the victory could not have been gained without them taking action.
  • Make sure most of the book is told by your protagonist’s perspective. Narration from a side character can be beneficial to learn more about the main character and give away information the primary does not know, but if the scene can be told better by the protagonist, it should be.
  • Make sure your protagonist gets more stage time than the secondary. Keep a list of scenes and record the characters who appear. Go back and count the number of appearances each character makes.
  • Make sure your audience will connect with your primary. Readers need to empathize or sympathize with the character. Usually the main character wants something difficult to obtain. They need a plight, a conflict, a reason to do everything they do.
  • Make sure your main character has a complete arc. Did they change in the end. Did they act upon this change? If they didn’t, this is probably why your main character lost his charms.  An arc is like a lover. The more stale and stagnant it gets, the more you look elsewhere for satisfaction. You might find yourself cheating on your protagonist with his sidekick. Dun-dun-duuun!!!
  • Find out what your supporting character means to your protagonist. All characters should have a purpose. Does he highlight a flaw your main character has, does he help or hinder your main character, are his conflicts connected to the plot? If you said no to any of these, your secondary needs to be changed.

Go through both these lists to identify why your main character is not holding a candle to your secondary character. Is this secondary character more interesting because they have more flaws and your main character is too perfect? Do they have more at stake? Do they have more goals? You might have to go back and redesign your characters. You may even have to do the unthinkable–remove them.

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4 thoughts on “Tuesday Tip

  1. smwright

    Some very important questions writers have to ask themselves as they go along. I know I had to stop writing a particular story I was working on before going back and correcting the imbalance between primary and secondary characters. I needed that space/time in order to see the situation that was unfolding more clearly. Also during the editing process I was able to correct a main character who had slid out of character, which help sure-up the balance of the story.

    • Exactly! Never too late to go back and fix a problem. It always helps to go back and look at it with a fresh mind, because even with a character sketch or interview, sometimes we accidently character assasinate.

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