3 Tips For Rounding Out Side Characters

Back in May, I received notes from my beta-readers on my current MS. There was a lot of positive feedback, but there were some definite places where I could improve. Specifically, rounding out my non-POV characters. In my head, I knew each character’s ups and downs, favorite ice cream, back stories, etc. But the actual writing didn’t reflect that depth.

There were a few things contributing to that issue: 1. The 1st Person POV, 2. My writerly brain focusing solely on the MC’s experiences while writing, and finally, 3. The very thin narrative.

I’m a big fan of fast-paced novels. It’s my reading preference, so in my baby-writer way, I wrote a slim narrative that wasn’t fair to my side characters.

Which brings me to Tip No. 1…
Don’t be afraid to write from side characters’ POV’s.

This tip goes for all POV styles, but where the actual words go differs. If you write 3rd Person, you might actually be able to use those words depending on how it applies to your plot. But if you write 1st Person (which I do), this will just be an exercise to become more acquainted with your characters.

So here’s the exercise: Take any scene from your WIP and rewrite it from a secondary character’s POV. This is particularly useful for scenes where you introduce a new character or moments of high-emotion (e.g. inciting incidents, romantic scenes, plot-turning points, etc.).

Tip No. 2…
It’s okay if the MC doesn’t control everything.

I realize this is rather a ::face:palm:: kind of tip because “Obviously the MC doesn’t control everything.” But let me explain. Sometimes when you’re writing [specifically 1st Person], you get so absorbed in what the MC is experiencing or what his/her character arc is that you develop blinders against other ideas. This was definitely an issue for me during the pre-beta drafts of my WIP, and it restricted me.

Exercise No. 2: Take a plot point from your MS that is on the verge of being trope-y. What characters are involved? Choose the most important character of that scene [apart from your MC] and let them take the reigns on when/where/how that scene takes place.

Side Note for the above exercise: I did this with my own MS and the scene ended up containing more world/character/plot development than it would have in its original form.

Tip No. 3…
Remember Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an opposite or equal reaction.

And suddenly this turned into a science blog. Sorry, writers! 😉

Seriously though, while you’re writing, remember that there are things happening off-stage as well. Every time your MC does/says something, it affects another character. Remember what Kurt Vonnegut said about how each sentence should either advance plot or reveal character? That applies here. So if your MC offends someone on page 50, that someone should come back around to cause an issue later.

Exercise No. 3: Pick a scene with dialogue where the MC makes a decision that affects the person he/she is talking to. Write the fallout of that scene from the perspective of the other person. How does it affect them? How will it affect their relationship with the MC going forward? These words don’t have to end up in the finished MS, but you should integrate what you’ve discovered in how the two characters interact.

What about ya’ll? What tips do you use to flesh out your secondary characters?

Happy writing!

Why you’re not writing: Critical Introspection

So a lot has happened in the last month for me, some good, some meh. On top of starting a new job, moving to the land of bugs and sunburns, and preparing for the Midwest Writers Workshop next month, I’ve been struggling – and I mean STRUGGLING – to put words to paper with this rewrite.

I’ve tried not to discuss my WIP here on the blog, but for the sake of what I’m attempting to say in this post, you’re going to learn a bit about my current book’s protagonist, Kjersten (pronounced like Kiersten, know as KJ to family and close friends).

Throughout KJ’s journey, she goes through a lot of growth as a person. She learns that she can’t take responsibility for everyone or everything, accepts that people have to be allowed to make their own mistakes, as well as learns to let people see her gooey center and learns to trust/rely on them.

These lessons don’t exactly come in delicious packages of delight. It’s a difficult journey paved with mistakes and irrevocable loss.

As is life.

I realized last night that I’m avoiding the upcoming chapters of the rewrite because I’m avoiding putting KJ (and myself) through that journey of growth again.

You see I spent the vast majority of 2011 in Baghdad, Iraq, as a military photojournalist/graphic artist. Due to the nature of the MOS (military occupation specialty), I saw more of the country than many of my fellow service members. Along with that, I worked a lot closer to the flagpole than most 19-year-old female specialists should without a proper leadership buffer. Shit happened. It left scars. PTSD is a bitch.

Anyhoo, when Soldiers – specifically Guardsmen – return to the States, society expects you to just keep moving. Get a job. Find a place to live. Because these things are so god damn easy. You have no opportunity to address the fact that you just spent a year of your life in a war zone. The majority of the people around you can’t relate to what you went through and it fucks with your brain. It starts to feel like the deployment didn’t actually happen, like it was all a bad dream that has somehow rattled your psyche to the point where you have emotional/psychological scars and triggers that you can’t even begin to predict. Like I said before, PTSD is a bitch.

Over the last couple years, I’ve worked incredibly hard to overcome this feeling of a disjointed reality, but it’s a constant battle. I would never wish this kind of thing on anyone, let alone a character who I’ve spent so much time with getting to know and telling their story. So that’s why this rewrite is kicking my ass. Now that I know this, I can continue forward.

So here’s the thing [aka the purpose for this post], none of that growth would have happened without some serious introspection. I think it’s an important part of our growth as human beings to stop every once in a while and truly, critically introspect on our thoughts and actions. If we all did this, the world would probably be a more compassionate, understanding place.

Just some food for thought.

Transitions: Difficult on and off the page.

Well I made it to Florida and began my new job as a Director of Marketing (I feel super grown-up, guys!). Last week was definitely a culture shock going from fast-paced DC to Destin’s more relaxed way of life. It’s not bad, just different. I promise I’ll get back to actually blogging about the writing craft soon (because I’ve learned SO MANY THINGS in the last couple months – Thank you, Chelsea and Hanna!). But until my feet are firmly planted in this new chapter of my life, my brain is consumed with trying to maintain my writing habits amongst my new schedule/work load.

Which brings me to this week’s topic: transitions.

While I’ve been slaving away on the post-beta rewrite for the WIP, I’ve noticed something curious about my transitions – they’re getting better.

In the previous draft, many of the transitions were jump cuts from one scene to the next, which in truth, is kind of a lazy form of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for jump cut transitions (definition below), but most of the time, they’re wasted opportunities to show the reader how your characters are responding to the world around them.

Now, transitions are difficult to write in general, and for a plotter like me, they’re frustrating bouts of space that keep me from jumping into the next juicy piece of plot. But here’s thing, if you don’t allow your protagonists an opportunity to process what’s happening to them, your readers won’t be able to sympathize with your character’s development.

So take a breath, slow down and let your readers enjoy those quiet moments with your characters.

Happy writing!

Jump Cut Transition: I stole the term “jump cut” from my video-editing peoples, which refers to an edit where the action isn’t continuous from one frame to another. For the print medium, I use it to describe when you leave an extra space in the formatting to show that you’re moving to another location/time in the story.  

Literary Tropes: The Love Triangle

Alright folks, it’s time for some real talk about a literary (and tv/movie) trope that seems to get people hyped up, which often results in some not-so-nice comments toward the creators of said works.

Now, I’m the last one to say that your comments are unfounded because you are definitely 100% entitled to your opinion – ’tis the way of the free world and all. BUT I don’t think it’s fair to be quite so mean in the delivery of said opinion – I’m just sayin’.

Granted this post is more rant than anything, but hopefully it provides a little more insight into why writers use this trope and why it’s useful.

WHY LOVE TRIANGLE’S ARE USED:

1. To show character development.

I think Alec Baldwin’s character Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock explained it best in episode 4.20 “The Moms” when he said, “They both give me different things. One connects me to the man I was. The other inspires…”

For those of you who don’t watch 30 Rock, in the later part of season 4, Jack is confronted with two love interests: his high school sweetheart, Nancy, and a younger, spitfire reporter, Avery. This love triangle comes at a point in Jack’s career where he can either sit back and lazily fall in line with his new parent company or he can continue to fight for innovation. I [speculate] the 30 Rock writers included this love triangle to draw parallels between Jack’s professional and personal decisions. When Jack does end up challenging Kabletown (the new parent company) to innovate and expand, he also ends up making the decision to choose Avery over Nancy.

2. It can provide plot depth & potential twists.

Okay, so this is where we start jumping into opinions. Personally, I have no real issues with a love triangle, provided it’s done well. I have a small obsession with Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, so I’m surprised this is my first reference to these books . . .

In this series, the protagonist Alanna trades places with her twin brother, so she can become a knight. Throughout her adventures, Alanna combats a plethora of issues and evils, but one of her personal hurdles is choosing between three [I guess that makes it a love quadrangle?] handsome and noble[ish] men. As the plot thickens and stakes are raised, we readers get to watch characters overcome personal opinions and frustrations to achieve larger goals. Each love interest provides a greater understanding of Alanna’s world but also challenges Alanna’s perceptions (and the perceptions of her other suitors).

WHY THEY GO HORRIBLY WRONG:

So I have my own list of love triangles that I really just didn’t enjoy reading/watching, but instead of going down that road, here’s WHY I find myself getting annoyed with this trope. Hint: It has nothing to do with the trope itself.

1. Characters aren’t fully developed.

If you’re going to write a love triangle, there NEEDS to be a reason for these characters to throw themselves into it. No sane person would put his or herself in the ridiculous position of falling in love with two different people, so why should your characters? You need to provide a reason why your MC would gravitate toward his/her separate love interests.

2. The love triangle is the main plot.

I have a hard time accepting this specific trope as an actual plot. It’s just very shallow and doesn’t really speak to real character growth. My recommendation: use it as a subplot to help move the main plot along, but please don’t make your story all about “oh deary me, which handsome prince will I choose?”. Just don’t. Please.

3. Your female character has no agency.

Quite a few blogs have been touching on the subject of female characters and their ability to affect plot, and there’s a reason for this: IT’S IMPORTANT! Seriously, if your female protagonist has no say in her story, there’s really no point in her even being there. If you have a female protagonist as the center of a love triangle, the subplot of her decision needs to be based on her decision, not how macho her suitors are.

Well that’s my rant on love triangles.

Happy writing & reading, everybody!

3 Tips To Making Your Romance Subplot Stand Out

Apart from the actual genre, romance remains to be one of the top subplots in fiction. Readers love to route for couples, plus romance lends itself toward numerous opportunities for tension. But before you go creating a love interest for your MC, I have a couple recommendations . . .

SIDE NOTE: Before you read on, note that I write YA Fantasy and most of what I read is YA, Fantasy or Sci-Fi. The comments below are geared toward these genres though most of it also applies to fiction in general.

1. Know your main character.

This may seem obvious, but so often writers create a love interest that would be perfect in any match, not specific to their MC. When creating the love interest, that character should undeniably be meant to end up with the MC.

Let’s look at Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew for example. Do you know anyone else who could possibly be a match for Katherina other than rambunctious Petruchio? Or who else could survive Petruchio’s antics other than tenacious Kate? Shakespeare creates a match for Kate that not only tames her but also fills the loneliness she hadn’t realized she had.

If you haven’t read/watched Taming of the Shrew, do so! For a filmed version, I recommend the taped stage version by the Broadway Theatre Archive staring Fredi Olster, Marc Singer and Stephen St. Paul. You can find it on Amazon.

2. Don’t make your love interest perfect.

This is just piggy-backing off #1. First off, a too-perfect LI makes for a boring story. Second, even if it manages to not be boring, a perfect LI can make your audience stop caring about the MC.

For this one, I’m turning to the Disney Classic, Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs. Does anyone actually remember the Prince is this movie? I have too many bones to pick with Disney’s rendition of the original Grimm fairytale to fit into this one paragraph, so I’m just gonna stick with the topic at hand.

Apart from the dwarves and the Evil Queen, there is little to no real characterization for Snow or Prince Charming. Snow’s love interest is literally just meant to look handsome and kiss her in the end. DON’T DO THIS! THIS IS NOT A LOVE STORY!

  1. Remember that love is a journey.

Even though we’re writing fiction, I think it’s important that we remember that as writers, we’re supposed to make our characters jump off the page and become as real as possible for our readers.

Because you can’t write an article of literary romance without mentioning Pride and Prejudice . . .

The reason none of us ever forget the romance between Lizzy Bennett and Mr. Darcy is because the characters had to overcome personal and social hurdles to find their love for one another.

Just like in real life, nothing worth having is easy. So when writing your romance subplot, make your characters work for it. Whether it’s “love at first sight” or a “friendship that grows into something more”, making your characters go through hell to get what they want will make their romance that much more memorable.

Happy Writing!