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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Secondary Characters Stepping Up by Martha Reed

I recall seeing a movie once where a secondary supporting character said something so funny and witty that when she walked off camera it kicked me out of the movie narrative because I lost interest in following the movie’s plot any further. I wanted to follow her to see what she was going to do next.

Judy Dench has this kind of magnetic pull on me, as does David Tennant, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth.

What are authors supposed to do when one of our secondary characters suddenly steps forward and demands more face time?

This has happened to me twice. At an active crime investigation in my Nantucket Mystery series, a CSI specialist made a remark that was so wry with dry humor that I had to rewrite the scene and dial it down because it literally stole the focus from the corpse. I never forgot the strength in her voice though, and when it came time to develop my new NOLA series, Jane stepped in, ready-made. It felt like a gift.

I also developed a young, vibrant UBER driver named Cleo for a short story. When the editing phase came, as it always does, I needed to trim the word count. Poor Cleo got axed. I remember apologizing to her as I hit the highlight and delete buttons. Being a frugal writer and knowing that aggressively vocal characters are a truly rare treasure, I pasted Cleo into a blank Word document and saved her for later, vowing to return. She has been very patiently waiting for me to do so, and as I worked on my current WIP I needed a strong new female antagonist and there she was. Another gift.

Readers and family members ask me if I hear my character’s voices when I write. I have to admit that eventually I do although I worry that my family’s going to notify the authorities and send for the men with the nets to come get me.

I remember the very first time this auditory surprise happened because as a newbie writer it scared me. I was drafting a scene with two characters enjoying a tea party when I “heard” the clink of a silver spoon against a fine china teacup. I was alone in the house. I stood up to see who it was, then sat back down as I realized that I’d heard the sound inside my head. Now that I’ve gotten used to the creative writing process I rejoice whenever I reach that level of creativity because then I know I’m solidly in the zone and for my money that’s the most joyous place to ever be.

So, writers, have you ever had a secondary character demand the spotlight? And do you hear voices in your head?


Jim Jackson said...

I had a character in the third novel of my Seamus McCree series who had the ability to steal a scene. I didn't let her, but years later, I am in the process of spinning her off into a separate series.

I have a new editor for this series in which Seamus is a secondary character. One of her comments was that she thought Seamus could play a bigger role in the story, to which my response was -- on no he can't. Seamus is a scene-stealer. When he gets too big for his britches, I have to send him out of town!

They have drugs that can help with that hearing voices in your head. For some characters, I can feel their speech patterns and see their movements, but I can't actually hear their voices. Which I could.

Martha Reed said...

Hi, Jim. Scene stealers are nothing but trouble. What is it about them that makes you want to ditch the narrative you've been following and follow them instead? For me, I'm always looking for sly humor. Gets me every time. What was it that caught your eye?

Grace Topping said...

Interesting points, Martha. I’m always amazed when I create a character. People ask me if I base characters on people I know, which I don’t. They just come to me fully formed as though they always existed. Nobody is more surprised than I am.

Martha Reed said...

Good morning, Grace. I have a friend who insists I based a character on him. I didn't, but I'll never win that argument. ;) I'm also amazed when I meet a new character. The backstory evolves and is revealed to me as first reader. It does seem like they're already fully formed, and the more time I spend with them the richer the 'friendship' develops. Stephen King says we excavate our characters, and I think he's right.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Yes, I have a secondary character screaming to take the lead. On my list.

When I'm trying to get an accent just right, I listen to You tube videos. Then the character speaks in my head.

Kait said...

Wonderful post! I clearly recall when a sidekick confessed to murder. I was shocked at the time and yet there was no mistaking his voice when he said, “I can’t believe you didn’t know I did it. You wrote me.” I was taken aback by his words and his tone. Of course, he was correct. After all, he’d done it.

Martha Reed said...

Hi Kait - I've run up on plot points that shocked me, too. It's hard to explain to non-writers how that can happen when yes, we are the writers creating the story. Shouldn't we already know that? I think it's somehow part of the way our human brain is wired, always imagining different possibilities, which probably saved us in the past when we were running from the lions. It is odd, but isn't it great fun?

Martha Reed said...

Hi, Margaret - YouTube is a great resource. I use it and Google Earth for scouting locations, too, especially when I'm checking to see if my character is going the wrong way on a one-way street. Readers really do pick up on that level of detail, and then I hear about it. :)

Tammy Euliano said...

Yes! several people have comments on one of my minor characters being their favorite. I'm trying to give him a bigger role in book 2, but am worried I'm not catching his nuance as this one is a bit darker...hmmm

Martha Reed said...

Hi Tammy - I'm up against the same thing with "Street Angel," my second book in the New Orleans Mystery series. It's proving to be a challenge to give her more air time. I wonder if it's the same things for long-term series sidekicks like Dr. Watson? What's the best way to bring them into the limelight without losing their special spark? Hummm, indeed.

KM Rockwood said...

Oh, yes, sometimes secondary characters demand a more prominent role in a novel. I have found that I can often stop and write a short story featuring the that character, which seems to resolve the immediate situation.

Martha Reed said...

Dorothy L. Sayers was the first writer I read who repeatedly introduced secondary characters throughout her Lord Peter Wimsey series, and I loved that idea. I've followed your example recently when I needed an FBI Special Agent. I already had one on hand, so I brought him into the short story and it worked. I hope this will surprise and charm my readers when he walks in.

Shari Randall said...

Hi Martha, this resonates, for sure! I have some secondary characters that do have to be used sparingly.
I wish I heard their voices (despite the men with the nets!) I see my characters and scenes, but I don't have sound. Here's hoping that happens with my new series.

Martha Reed said...

Hi Shari - Okay, let me ask you this: maybe you don't hear their voices, but do you ever catch yourself acting out the physical action (blinking repeatedly, clearing your throat, gaping, etc.)? I've wondered if writing is actually some crazy form of acting only with words.

Jennifer J. Chow said...

Nice post, Martha! I love how you saved your characters and brought them into new settings.

I definitely see and hear scenes played out before me when writing.