Honing in on Minor Characters

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It has finally happened. The baby is napping regularly — and I’m back to writing regularly! I was hesitant to declare victory at first, but it’s been a few weeks now, so I think it’s safe. Hooray! Imagine the cheers I’ve been doing. While continuing to teach with the baby has been great, writing is also a big part of who I am and I’ve missed it.

This week the major hurdle has been a particular scene with my main character’s mom. The scene as it currently reads is pretty blah: we get a slight feel for the mom’s character, but it doesn’t show us at all Wendy’s conflict with her mom.

So I decided to go back to the drawing board, sort of literally.

Last summer, when I created avatars of my characters, I only did the main ones. Like, the ones that show up on more than just two pages. When I started agonizing over the scene with the mom, I realized that I didn’t have a clear picture of her in my head.

As I mentioned in a post earlier this year about the movie Easy A, I believe how you portray the parents in young adult fiction is a crucial element to the story. I have been very turned off by flat parents in otherwise great books. And yet the parents in my own manuscript are incredibly flat! Oops. But I swear I’ve always meant to round them out; I never intended to leave them that way. This week I’ve finally started to get around to it.

While I was at it, I decided I better create every character that has a speaking line in my book. Suddenly my cast of eleven ballooned into eighteen portraits. The setup below shows the hierarchy: top tier = main characters, second row = secondary characters, third row = minor teenage characters, bottom = minor adult characters.

Some of them I tweaked from the original portrait, like Brianna and Abuelita, who needed just one or two different features. Some of them don’t even have names that are absolutely solidified. (Peter’s mom, currently labeled “Karen,” has been fluctuating the most, and the craggy-faced gnome doesn’t even get a name in the manuscript right now, so I threw “Vydin” on his picture just because those were the syllables that came to mind first.) And some of them, like “Mitch,” still don’t look right but are close enough for now.

It’s helping. There’s so much you can tell about a character by how they look. Once I can picture them, it’s easier to see how they might act and react in a given situation.

My next job is to try a tactic I heard on the radio last weekend, which is to come up with five adjectives for each character and have at least two of them be positive. Such a great way to make your characters complex. Wendy spends such a large chunk of the book upset with her dad that I want to be sure  he has redeeming qualities too. Hopefully between the portraits, the adjective exercise, and all the scene blocking I’ve been working on, I can round out these minor characters of mine.

That is if I can quit getting distracted making avatars . . .

What can I say? My attention is starting to stray to my next book. While for other writers this might happen any time, for me I get so fully immersed in each manuscript I work on that I don’t think about the next one until I’m ready to push the current one out the door. So this is a good sign! It’ll give me more motivation to wrap up Wendy and the Lost Boys, especially since seeing these two new main characters makes me so excited to start working on their story.

They are going to be cool, let me tell you. But I’ll keep my ideas for them super secret until I have a full draft, probably by early 2012. Consider these avatars a sneak peek and an assurance that soon WLB will be off to solicit an agent.

In the mean time, I’d love your thoughts about minor characters in general. What are some of your favorite minor characters — especially favorite parent characters — in books or movies? What makes them great?

Leave a comment!

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8 responses »

  1. I can definitely understand how knowing how your characters look can help you understand how to write them. Designing character appearances is one of my favorite parts of crafting a story because afterwards I feel as though I’ve met them.

    I’m a bit out of the loop as far as books and movies. But in comics, my current favorite parents are in “Max Overacts”. http://occasionalcomics.com/
    Another fun comic with good minor characters is “Americus”. In particular, I like the main villain’s family. http://blog.saveapathea.com/

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    • I envy your ability to draw your own characters! I tried and they weren’t cute, so the avatar generator was my best alternative. But yes, it does feel like meeting them. So true! Thanks for those comic links; I’ll have to check them out. 😀

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  2. I love how you did every character with a speaking line and that it helped. I should go do the same thing, because I’ve only done the main characters. Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

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    • I hope it helps for you, too. I should probably even do the ones without speaking lines just to better populate the world in my head. I’m sure the more novels I write the better I’ll know my own process on all rhis.

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  3. We have a P-Day injured missionary. I baby sat last night instead of going out with the others like I usually do. Don’t tell anyone, but after I elevated his broken ankle and iced it we watched “Blind Side” his favorite movie.

    I don’t remember the last movie I sat and watched, but we had a boys’ night out (or “in” in this case). Anyway, Michael and the Mother are devinely portrayed as the main characters, but just watch the character development of the father and the daughter.

    The daughter watching, in avacado, sitting outside the door and then finally moving to join her new brother at the library table. I cry when I watch the love she gains.

    The father, steady and laid-back, yet moments of the depth in his character shine through. Watch one of the final scenes when he holds her on their bed and tells her how truly wonderful he knows she is. He grows or maybe he’s so deep we just begin to see it in that and other scenes.

    Well, I am not an avatar creator, but I love to find my characters in pictures from the web. I am obsesive about it. Again, between us, I also love to go shopping for them online. Especially the women. There are some awesome clothes out there.

    Keep writing! and sharing!

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    • Ooh, now I want to go back and watch that again. Thanks for sharing those observations. I think those kinds of emotional moments with minor characters are so important in a story. I just added a tiny moment in my novel this week that felt like it helped tremendously because just one description and piece of dialogue suddenly brought to life one particular relationship that had been flat before. Love how powerful a moment can be!

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  4. This is a fabulous idea … I tried it last night and discovered that it seems the characters “know” what they are supposed to look like. To my surprise. Yes, it was absolutely like meeting the characters. And I like the notion of creating avatars for those with a speaking role.

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    • Cool! Glad you had such a good experience with it. I have a major problem with my left brain dominating too much when I write, so any activity like this that lets my right brain take over and actually “get in touch with” my characters helps me a lot.

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