Minor Issues in My Fiction
I realize you’re bound to take with a grain of salt any assessment I make of my own writing. While I maintain that a writer can in fact evaluate his own work, (often being more of a critic than others are of it), I’ll understand if you are skeptical. But a writer spends more time with himself than anyone else, so he must learn to trust his own judgement to a degree, or perish. (In a literary sense only, of course.)
That being established, I have come to notice that in my fiction, minor characters, or at least supporting characters, are easier to work on.
The initial assumption is that because such characters are present in the work for fewer pages, they are de facto easier because they require less work. In some ways they do require less time to work on, but I won’t say less thought. A lot of thought can go into minor characters, in fact. The “support staff” of your novel has an important job to do, after all, and blowing off such characters within your fiction will eventually come back to bite you in the form of a lousy manuscript.
So, minor characters still require a willingness to think. Yet still that thinking is less laborious for supporting characters. Why?
I have my theories. The main one being that with a minor character, (especially one into whose mind the narration never enters), I’m more acutely aware of the importance of dialogue, mannerisms, and action. To use the tired old expression it becomes necessary to show and not tell when it comes to these minor characters. The way they’re seen by others is all the reader will have to get to know them.
Take my current work in process, Flowers for Dionysus. In it, I visit the minds of five people, to various degrees, throughout the story. (Best described as an urban fantasy. Probably.)
As I wrote it, (and as I revise it), I have the added duty to make the reader understand what each of these “point of view” characters is perceiving. What they are thinking and how it makes them feel. That of course must be balanced with showing them do things that are consistent with who they are, and having them say things that will reveal important details about them. They are key to the movement of the plot, and so each is this big huge important thing that simply must work or the whole thing is sunk. (See what I mean about writers being their own sternest critics??)
One of these central characters is Tanya. Her spirituality is a complex one that has led her to certain places, and I struggle to make sure the reader is aware of that spirituality, without slipping into “tell” mode. It’s a delicate balance, and on the fourth draft I’m still not sure if I’ve struck the cord I want with Tanya yet.
Tanya has a 17 year old brother, named Kurt. he isn’t a central character. Kurt doesn’t experience any of the fantastical elements of the story. He’s just Kurt. A theatrical lighting genius that’s working the community production around which the plot is based. He wears a fedora, likes to torment his older sister (of course), and is one of the most dedicated people in the production. He manages this while still being at times an obvious goof-off.
Every time I wrote a scene with Kurt in it, I had a good time. Not that I didn’t enjoy writing the whole novel, but the times when I was writing Kurt seemed more effortless than other times. Sometimes when a scene wasn’t going anywhere, I’d throw Kurt into it and the gears would start turning again. He is seen through the eyes of four out of the five main players at some point in time.
Kurt adds flavor to the proceedings. He reveals facts as needed, but is otherwise pure personality. I must show you everything I want you to know about Kurt because, again, the narration never takes place from within his mind. You never read what he is thinking directly. You have to take his word for it. One of my test readers said that by the end of the novel she was noting that certain actions were “a very Kurt thing to do.”
Which is perfect. When a reader sees Kurt doing something and can categorize it as a “Kurt thing”, I have done my job. In all my revisions, I have rarely had to rethink Kurt.
I will concede that more is riding on the writing of the five POV characters than on the writing of Kurt, and that pressure may be one reason writing the main characters is sometimes more arduous. But I can’t help but think that if I could have injected all of the joy of writing Kurt, (and Mort the Bartender, and Ben the freshman) into the central characters, they too would seem more real, more fun to write, and more satisfactory.
Now I have over the last few drafts improved upon the “Big Five” drastically. I have become happier with them as time goes on. But their importance still casts a bit of a shadow over the proceedings. The minor characters have been shining bright from the very start.
What can I take from my approach to minor characters into my approach with the central characters? “Show don’t tell”, yes. I hear that one all the time and so do you. Easier said than done with a character whose thoughts must be understood. Should I perhaps write just the actions of the central characters first, ignoring their thoughts until later? Remind myself that each central character is but a minor supporting part in someone else’s story? I don’t know. I confess it’s a bit of a quandary for me.
I’m not worried. Like I said I always get to where I want to be, or at least closer, with my central characters. It just takes a lot more sweat and stress than it does with the minor ones. Who knows? Perhaps in the end it has to be that way. Perhaps central characters are, by their nature, the most stressful part of a story. It’s possible I’m looking for a reprieve where none is possible. I chose the writing life, and this may just be one of the aspects of it. Or at least one of the aspects of my personal journey through my fiction.
But it would be nice if I could change the balance between minor and central character enjoyment just a tad, wouldn’t it?
What about you? What’s your relationship to your supporting cast? Are they easier or more difficult for your to construct? Let me know.