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.

Tuesday Tip

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tip#2When we meet someone for the first time, we ask questions to get to know them–unless you’re Toby Keith and you just wanna talk about you. Asking questions is a great way to get to know your characters.  But who do you ask? Characters aren’t real people; they can’t talk . . . or can they? For my second Tuesday tip, I’m going to talk about one way to get to know your characters.

Character interviews are a fun way to discover what you know–or don’t know–about your characters. By the end of the interview you should establish these things: origin, back story, family, physical appearance, talents/skills, personality traits (both good and bad), and goals/obstacles.

You can pretend you’re Oprah Winfrey or Stephen Colbert. Just make sure you are in the character’s mind frame when you answer the questions. The easiest method for a character interview is to prepare the questions in advance and answer them as the character. Helpful hint: use a friend as an interviewer so your answers will be more spontaneous. Below are some questions you should ask your protagonist as well as your secondary characters. Feel free to post your answers in the comment section below, I’d love to get to know your characters.

Start with Basics

What is your name? Any nicknames? Who gave them to you?

What do you look like? What is your most distinguishing feature?

What are you wearing right now?

What do you do for a living? If you could change jobs, would you?

Where were you born? Do you live there now? Where would you like to live?

What impression do you make on people? Does this attitude change as they get to know you?

Do you have family? Do you get along with them?

Let’s Dig a Little Deeper

What is your greatest fear? Who have you told this to? Who would you never tell?

Do you have a secret? Does anyone know?

What is your greatest achievement?

What is your greatest characteristic? Your worst flaw? Does this flaw get in the way of your goals or keep you from being who you want to be?

What do you do when you’re angry? When you’re happy? Which of these do you feel more often?

Are you in love? Have you ever been in love? Have you had your heart broken?

What is your greatest regret?

What is your best talent? What talent would you like to have?

If you were cleaning your house, what would you have a hard time getting rid of?

If you had one day to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?

Who is your best friend? Worst enemy? Which would you like to know better?

What is the worst thing that’s happened in your life? The worst thing you’ve done? Did you learn anything from it?