Wednesday, July 4, 2012
On February 3, 2012, CallMeAddie wrote, I also have the problem that I'm trying to make too many of my characters important, and my main characters aren't feeling so MAIN anymore. Any advice?
The great aspects of this problem are that you (and anyone else in the same pickle) have set up a story world with a lot of complexity and a cast of characters that interests you. You have a problem of abundance, which is much better than a problem of scarcity - but no less frustrating.
(When I say story world I don’t necessarily mean fantasy. Every story, even an utterly realistic one, exists in its own world.)
Of course I understand the impulse to make everybody interesting. We don’t want stick figures walking across our pages. Suppose your characters include five companions, the mother of one of them, the little brother of another, an instructor in the art of making singing puppets, the owner of a lumberyard that sells the wood for the puppets, and a villain who wants to destroy all puppets. The major characters are two of the companions, the instructor, and the villain. Try giving the others no more than two identifying qualities; just one may do. The little brother has a genius for saying the wrong thing. The mother interrupts the companions' work to offer creature comforts - pie, cookies, pillows, blankets - that nobody wants. The lumberyard owner shortchanges her customers, and the companions always have to check they’re getting the kind of wood they asked for. Etc. Each of these is enough to hint at depth for the reader. We don’t have to do more.
If your secondary characters are stealing the show, could be that the plot as well as your mains is being undermined. After all, it’s the mains’ troubles that drive the story car. If you’re caught up in the miseries and quirks of your secondaries, the car may be wandering on flat side roads rather than climbing the mountain to the story summit.
For most stories mains mean one or two or conceivably three characters. I have two mains in my novel Ever: Kezi, a mortal girl who may soon die, and Olus, the god of the winds, who loves her. The narration alternates chapter by chapter from one to the other. The thrust of the story is the effort to save Kezi. A second very important strand is their growing romance. But some of the other characters intrigued me, especially in Olus’s pantheon of gods, several of whom sleep their immortal lives away, out of boredom. There’s also Puru, the god of fate, who wishes for happy outcomes but can do nothing to bring them about. They’re tragic figures, and I would have liked to explore them, but if I had, my story would have seeped away.
If your minor characters are screaming to be brought to full life, you have options. You can promise them their own stories if they’ll shut up. Then trim them back to definite secondary status in the one you're working on. If you have to, in order to satisfy them, write a page or two of the story for each. Or you can write these stories completely. There’s no law dictating the sequence of your creation. However, the deal is that in these new stories, the less important characters remain so.
Or consider whether some of the fascinating aspects of these lesser characters (lesser only in terms of your story) can be loaded onto your mains. Maybe the lesser guys appeal to you because your mains aren’t developed enough. Suppose Puru, the god of fate in Ever, bows compulsively in a vain attempt to appease the forces that cause bad outcomes. Imagine Olus picks up this odd practice. He’s seen Puru do it and figures there must be a value, and what harm can it do? Now that the gesture belongs to Olus, we don’t ever have to see Puru do it, we can just be told in a sentence that he does. And Olus’s bowing can become more frequent, deeper, and more frantic as he gets increasingly worried about Kezi. (I didn't do this in the book; it never occurred to me.)
Or you can press on. Let the minor characters do their things and discover in the writing what you need and what you don’t. Then fix and trim in revision. Maybe you’ll discover as you keep going that you’ve picked the wrong mains, and your story really is about Jeff and Judy, not Marie and Mark.
Can you have more than three mains? Maybe. If you have a proliferation of important characters, you may want to frame the story in another way. Imagine a theater tale, and suppose the issue at issue is the production, not the lead. Maybe this is a community theater and the soul of the town is at stake if the theater goes under. So we see that the director is having a creative crisis and the great lady of the troupe can no longer memorize her lines and may be on her way to dementia. And the male lead, who is really good, has lost his job and may have to relocate. And the set designer and the costume master are feuding. And the building itself that houses the theater needs electrical work and is a fire hazard. Somehow they all have to pull together to save the day. Any group activity will work for this approach. Bat 6 (upper elementary school and up) by Virginia Euwer Wolff is an example of a novel with a big cast of main characters that works amazingly well.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Write the puppet-making story. What do the mains want? What’s the purpose of the singing puppets? Write enough of the story to introduce the mains and at least some of the secondaries, who may not all come into the story right away. You can use the distinguishing qualities I suggested or make up other ones. If you like, keep going.
∙ An interesting aspect of The Wizard of Oz, book or movie, is that the wizard, a major character, doesn’t appear until late in the game. Before then, he’s spoken of, and his effects are felt. Write a story along the same lines. A main character is evident by her absence, but her influence is ever-present (or frequently present). She can be villain or heroine.
∙ Write a collaboration story, like the theater one I suggested. The problem could be an underdog team (any sport, ice hockey, swimming, laser sword fighting) winning a championship. Could be the survival of the human race against aliens, a pandemic, robots. Could be whatever. Introduce quirky main characters, at least five, who have issues that may both help and hurt the joint effort.
Have fun, and save what you write!