Keeping Side-Characters From Anarchy//A Guest Post by Rachel Heffington

Saturday, November 23, 2013

via pinterest
Some authors have these massive plots with epic battles and awe-inspiring, heroic deeds...but they don't have anyone to do the deeds. Me? I've always been a people-person and therefore I'm invariably saddled with a dozen full-fleshed characters blinking up at me with curious expressions on their faces, waiting till I figure out who is who and how the heck they fit into the sometimes-meager plot I began with. More often than not this sudden show of characters aids my plot: with more people I have more events, more back-story, more interactions, more choice! Often it seems like a stroke of beautiful mercy straight from Heaven.
But beware the overly-helpful side-people. The danger for an author whose strength is in characterization is that there will be too many side-shows and the story will become decentralized. Government and Stories are two different things - the proper role of government is to be decentralized. The proper role of Story is to centralize everything. The mark of a good writer is their ability to attach significance, continuity, and importance to every scene in the story. Side-characters who are well-fleshed and have their own histories are a great boon to this continuity:

The chemist is really the preacher's son? Well that's pretty amazing because the preacher was once a reprobate and had a liason with Lady Annabella who is now married to Lord Harrolds and hates the chemist, not knowing it's really her son. And did I mention that the chemist has secret dreams of being a novelist but for now is stuck with being a jockey for the county races on the sidelines?

Oooooookayyyy. Not that we really care about Lady Annabella, Lord Harrolds, the chemist's novelistic dreams or the fact that he races horses. Not unless it figures largely into the plot.
"But the chemist is so LOVEABLE!" you might squeak.
Mmmm yes. And he figures into exactly one scene. Two, if he's lucky, and three if he's absolutely amazingly fortunate. If your tendency is toward being character-prolific, make sure that your maincharacters are just as interesting as the side ones. In The Baby ( a book I have shelved but will be returning to) I began to pay more attention to certain side characters than I did to the principle two. This began to tell on my ability to keep the plot centralized and on the prospective reader's ability to sympathize with the main characters.

But how do you keep larger-than-life characters tame?
This is where you have been gifted with a deep well of gold: profile your side characters all you want but don't spill all their beans. What you need to do instead is channel that back-story into a few select phrases of the main text. Drop hints as to the characters' pasts, dreams, hopes, aspirations, but don't go into detail. Not only does this give the main story a richer, deeper feel, but it also sets you up well in case you'd like to star these side characters in their own book later on. One thing it is easy to forget when writing a book is that these characters presumably have a life outside of the realm of your story. That means you don't have to spill all their guts into this one book. You don't have to tell their entire life stories. Think of it this way: You meet people all the time and they are real, living, breathing people with thoughts and motives that you are seldom told, but that are acted upon by them in every "scene" they have with you. Could you accuse most people of being cardboard cut-outs? No. They have full realities of their own. Do they tell you everything about their poor David Copperfield childhood in a conversation that began at how much you like their purple pea-coat? Hopefully not.
Sprinkle the depth into their actions and when there is a spare moment, drop a bit into the actual prose. But most of the time your side-characters can be amazing without having to take over the show.


Rachel Heffington
I am not a drop-dead gorgeous sort of girl. Thankfully that does not matter on paper, nor does it matter for real in this world. I sometimes am deceived into feeling that it matters, but it does not and so I ignore those lies and continue on my merry way. I have a distinctive voice, as you will soon find, and that voice is the one I hear all day long in my head. It's saucy. It's funny. It likes to think itself clever. It uses misplaced capitals Like This. I love all things vintage, romantic, and lovely. I am a woman--what can I say? This is me. The me apart from and in my blog. The Rachel Heffington that pours herself into a story, works hard at it, and hopes for the best. Pleased to meet you.

1 comment

  1. Thanks! This is a really helpful post for me where I'm writing right now. As an author of literary fiction sometimes it's easy to let character's thoughts crowd out the less-important plot, and unfortunately over-burdening the reader with information that does little to further my message and moral. Finding the balance is always so hard! Great tips.

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