Villains and Secondary Characters: Positioning and Mystery

When considering the character arc of villains and secondary characters, how that arc resolves is often considered in relation to the hero/protagonist. That does not have to be the ultimate determining fact, though.

Positioning

It is all right for a secondary character to start and/or end up in a better position than the main character. If a secondary character is better suited or more qualified to rule or win or gain a benefit, then it is logical that they would unless the writer provides a good enough reason for a different outcome. Secondary characters should be allowed to act on their strengths and fail or struggle based on their weaknesses. Don’t limit a secondary character’s arc just for the sake of making the main character look better.

It is also acceptable for a villain to reach a resolution that is more positive than expected. Part of a villain’s character arc may be self-improvement, so a better-than-expected resolution may be warranted. It may also be the case that an equitable ending between the villain and hero is not the most reasonable or desirable outcome for the story.

The hero (or villain) does not always have to end in that role. Switching roles are altering a main character’s path can be an important element of development for that character. Allow his or her traits and personality to determine the path taken, rather than locking him or her into a particular role.

Mystery

When writing a main character, it is often necessary to divulge a great deal of detail, going into backstory, motivations, thoughts, and feelings. When developing a secondary character, it is often necessary to be more sparing with details due to space constraints. That doesn’t mean that these characters are incomplete.

Revealing fewer details can work to your advantage and help you create some mystery and opportunities for future development in later stories or chapters. Reveal details about a secondary character that are pertinent to the main storyline or main character’s development. Hold back other details, but do so in a way that motivates the reader ask questions and wonder.

Give enough details about a secondary character that the reader can understand that character’s personality, culture, place in the story, relation to the story and main character in time, and his or her potential character arc. Leaving out more specific details reminds the reader that there is more to the story and makes the story world feel more realistic because it extends beyond the immediate storyline.

There is so much more to a great story than a lovable hero. Readers need to connect emotionally to every character on some level to keep them interested and involved in the story. Love or hate or something in between, reaction is key. Apathy toward characters breeds disinterest. Disinterested readers put books down and look elsewhere…permanently.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Secondary Characters with Impact

While secondary characters are typically less integral to a story, that doesn’t mean they should be any less real.

Secondary characters should still have some level of a character arc, though it will necessarily be less complex than the main character’s arc.

Even though much of a secondary character’s backstory may never see page time, it’s important that you know their story and personality so you can weave it into their interactions with the main characters. This will not only make them more memorable, it will also make the interactions more meaningful and provide a fuller scene with the main character.

Secondary characters should also have a purpose. They should, in some way, help to progress the storyline through their presence or interactions with the main characters. This may come in the form of providing assistance, revealing information, being an emotional support, etc. How a secondary character progresses the story depends greatly on the type of story it is, but be mindful that they should be serving a purpose and not be acting a page filler or a basic sounding board.

It’s also important to consider a secondary character’s motivation. Why is he or she helping this character? Because you, as the author, need them to is not a good enough reason. Reach into their backstory to find and then develop their motivation. Help doesn’t have to be entirely altruistic either. The secondary character should have mixed feelings about providing help, or be reluctant to offer it. It could also be self-serving or their presence could act as a hindrance or barrier rather than being helpful.

Secondary characters exist on either side of the protagonist-antagonist spectrum. Don’t short change secondary characters involved with the villain/antagonist. These characters can be important cogs in the overall mechanism of how the antagonist’s path and ultimate resolution unfold. An antagonist taking something too far could prompt a secondary character to walk away, leading to him or her reconsidering what they are doing. Alternately, a secondary character who wants the antagonist to fail could give the final nudge to push him or her over the edge and initiate a chain of events that leads to his or her downfall.

Secondary characters may have less page time than main characters, but their influence on other characters and events can be profound when the time is taken to full develop them and integrate them into the story.

Story Structure: Showing Character Change and Staying on Point

Every scene in a book should have a purpose. Part of that purpose should be to show how a character is progressing through their arc.

Showing Character Change

Every scene should demonstration some form of character change. The change exhibited may be subtle, especially if it is a transition scene or largely informational. When considering how to show how a character is changing, think back to the character arc and what point the character is on the arc at that moment.

The change shown should show development and growth of the character in reference to previous scenes, or show backsliding behavior that may lead toward a crisis. The change shown should be related to what is happening in the scene.

Whatever happens in the scene should have an impact on the character, eliciting change on some level, whether emotional, mental, or behavioral. Change should match the character and the event to keep it realistic. A minor even that creates a major change will feel forced to the reader.

One character may also see an event as not a big deal, while the other sees it as a huge problem, so be sure to consider the character’s personality developed up to that point. The character needs to react and change according to their perceptions.

Staying on Point

Scenes should leave out all the boring and non-important details of the characters’ lives. Life may be filled with the mundane, but scenes should not include details that are not relevant to the scene’s purpose.

If the information, actions, or dialogue don’t pertain to the purpose of the scene, cut it out and reevaluate what is needed to move the scene forward.

Consider starting in the middle of a scene, with action of some kind, and leave out the movements in and out of the scene. This helps curtail unnecessary details that will bore or confuse the reader. Irrelevant details can make the reader focus on the wrong information, thinking it is important to the story or scene.

Only insert backstory when it doesn’t slow the present scene. If a large portion of backstory explanation is needed, structure the scene around that information rather than trying to insert it into scenes with a different purpose. It’s also important only to share relevant backstory information needed for that particular scene to keep from bogging it down.

Enriching characters through backstory

What is the most unusual profession a character has had from a book you’ve read?

Death_to_stock_kinckerbocker_photography_2I asked this question to a group of writers I work with and got some interesting answers, from a magical beast researcher to professional occult consultant to uprooting human babies grown in soil.

It was the start of a discussion on how backstory influences a character and how a well-developed backstory makes a stronger and more interesting character.

There are several important areas of backstory to consider:

  • Convictions/Beliefs: political, social, economic views; theories on life; HOW did they acquire these?
  • Education: formal/non-formal, location, type of school
  • Family/Friends: be detailed, include those not active in story (may be later)
  • Geography: detail environment that helped shape character (climate, socio-economic, culture, history)
  • Key Past Events: events that shaped personality, fears, beliefs, etc.
  • Past Success/Failures: track record, worst memories, reasons behind fears, etc.
  • Phobias: reason behind avoidance or push to succeed, big or small
  • Profession: $$, love it/hate it?, biding time, stepping stone, dream job, etc.
  • Quirks: what makes them unique physically, psychologically, socially (Forest Gump, A Beautiful Mind)
  • Value System: define their version of right and wrong; what do they value in themselves/others, etc.
  • Talents/Skills: are they used/abandoned, many/few, etc.
  • Time Period: make it accurate, have a good reason for choosing it

Any backstory elements you choose to use should add something to the character and story. Superfluous details aren’t needed.

writing-1209121_1920If you find you’re struggling with developing a strong backstory or aren’t sure how to incorporate the backstory elements you’ve chosen in a meaningful way, here’s a great exercise to help you delve a little deeper:

  • Pick ONE element of backstory to develop: Moved constantly due to financial instability, as adult hoards money, intends to live in same house forever
  • Choose THREE ways that element manifested in the PAST: Craves stability in every aspect of life, won’t change despite bad situation, has witnessed crimes in neighborhood
  • Choose THREE ways this manifests in the PRESENT: House needs constant repair, poor job leaves no money for repairs, hides from neighbors

One last bit of advice on backstory is to DO THE RESEARCH

Whatever professional or educational background you choose should be realistic.

It takes 20 years of service to retire from the military. There are no 25-year-old retired ex-Navy SEALs, and it’s highly unlikely that they’re billionaires from their service alone. Electing not to re-enlist isn’t the same as retiring.

Becoming a psychiatrist takes 12 years on average (and includes going to medical school), and it takes about 10 years to become a licensed clinical psychologist, and doctor patient relationships would ruin a career.

Of course, lines can be pushed and crossed in fiction at times, but it’s important to be as realistic as possible or readers won’t be able to suspend their belief enough to enjoy the story.

Tips for writing a great hook

Writing a great hook takes headaches, crying, and endless rewrites.

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Below are a few things to keep in mind while crafting a stand-out hook

A great hook catches readers’ attention

• Write something that startles the reader: “Shaye Archer’s life effectively began the night police found her in an alley, beaten and abused and with no memory of the previous fifteen years, not even her name.” Malevolent by Jana DeLeon
• Open with the inciting incident: “When Willow is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, her parents are devastated—she will suffer hundreds of broken bones as she grows, a lifetime of pain.” Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult
• Create intrigue: “Inspired by a terrifying true story from the author’s hometown, a heart-pounding novel of suspense about a small Minnesota community where nothing is as quiet—or as safe—as it seems.” Unspeakable Things by Jeffrey Eugenides

A great hook catches readers’ attention

• Introduce something ominous: “A bloodthirsty sheriff is terrorizing a small Texas town where justice has been buried with his victims.” In the Heart of the Fire by Dean Koontz
• Make the characters sympathetic and relatable: “What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince of all time and he turns out to be…well…a lot less than the man of her dreams?” The Princess Bride by William Goldman
• Capture the reader’s heart “Every so often a love story so captures our hearts that it becomes more than a story—it becomes an experience to remember forever.” The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

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Re-releasing the Date Shark series

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Earlier this year, I got the rights back to my Date Shark series, and I knew it wasn’t going to be as simple as simply republishing them for several reasons.

The editing on the first book had been horrible, and I realized when I started re-editing that the edits I had sent back to the publisher five years ago had been ignored. I’d received multiple complaints about the editing from readers when it first published, but it was out of my hands at that point.

The editing did improve over time as the publisher I was working with upgraded their editing staff, but there were still enough errors remaining that I knew the entire series needed to be re-edited. That process took me almost five months because I didn’t have a lot of spare time after starting a new job at the newspaper and taking on a few too many freelance projects.

I also needed new cover art before I could republish the series. I was happy to redo the first book’s cover, but I had chosen the model art for books two through four, so at least I didn’t have to start completely from scratch. My main challenge was not being able to use the cool shark fin A in the original cover art and trying to find something comparable. My husband helped me choose a new font and rightly steered me away from trying to include any water-like effects and just go with the sketched shark logo instead.

My next challenge was when to re-release each book. I asked other authors and got advice on scheduling, but in the end, it took me so long to format each book that they ended up spacing themselves out well enough, for the most part. Books two and three released within days of each other because, honestly, I was sick of working on them and just wanted to be done.

Going back through these books was actually a fun experience overall. I hadn’t chatted with these characters in almost three years and had forgotten how much I loved them! Sabine and Michael’s story is still my favorite of the series, and rereading the books reminded me that poor Leo never got to have his own story.

I had planned to give Leo a voice as the final book in the series, but because of issues with the publisher and limited writing time back then, I stored the idea away for later. I do have some other projects that need attention, but I want to eventually come back to Leo’s story and finish off the series by giving him his own happy ending.

For now, the series is back up on all the major retailers and ready to meet new readers!

You can find all the links here.

Writing a Character With Depth: Where to Start

Characters can make or break even the best of ideas, but where do you start when building great characters?

It might depend on what type of writer you are. Here are a few options for getting started.

Character Profiling

Invisible Cast

Start with the basics: Who is your character?

  • Create a character profile sheet and be as detailed as possible
  • Physical characteristics
  • Eye/hair color, weight, height, etc.
  • Personality traits
  • Happy, gloomy, morose, optimistic, etc.
  • Likes/Dislikes
  • Fears/Dreams
  • Talents/Goals
  • Secret or otherwise
  • Flaws (We’ll talk about this on in more depth later)

Start with a picture

Car Man Head in HandsInstead of starting from scratch, find a picture you think is interesting and describe what you see. Go deeper than how they look.

  • What motivates these characters?
  • What are there goals?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • How did they end up in this situation?
  • What emotions are they dealing with?
  • Where will they go from here?

Start making a list of character traits that will help bring them to life.

The key with the beginning stages of character development is to get to know your characters, find out what problems they are facing (there MUST be a problem), and what the first stage of their journey looks like.

If you want to hear the full discussion now, listen to “Episode 5: Creating a Character with Depth” on #WritePublishRepeat Podcast.

Creating a Protagonist With Depth: Part Five

If you haven’t read the first three part in the series, you can find Part One HERE, Part Two HERE, Part Three HERE and Part Four HERE.


Now let’s discuss how to make your characters fail in a way that makes them better.


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Failure

Just like nobody enjoys a perfect character, no one likes a character that always makes the right choices and succeeds
If your character always succeeds, where’s the tension, the worry that they might fail? Without that, readers get bored.
A story needs fear that the character will fail/die/be beaten in order to keep readers flipping pages.
Even if they think they know where the story is going, they want to find out how they’ll get there


 How do you make them fail? Rope 2

Look back at their list of faults and flaws. Which of those can you use to put them in a situation where making the right choice will be difficult?
In “What We Saw At Night” Allie doesn’t tell the police what she saw because she’s afraid of getting in trouble for being somewhere she shouldn’t.
Why was she out at night? Because she has a severe sun allergy and has started taking risks because she thinks she won’t live very long.


hand over mouthHow do you avoid nonsense failure?

Does it make sense in real life?
If some guy told you he was sneaking into your room to watch you sleep at night, you’d freak out. Bella, though, was totally cool with it, which has garnered criticism.
Would two parents ever actually split up twin girls and never let them see each other for their own selfish reasons like they did in The Parent Trap? I highly doubt it.
When helping characters make decisions, make sure there’s a good reason for what they choose. Lean on that backstory you crafted.
Do their fears influence them?
Have past hurts caused them to mistrust others when they shouldn’t?


What character failures have left an impression with you?


Creating A Protagonist With Depth: Part Four

If you haven’t read the first three part in the series, you can find Part One HERE, Part Two HERE, and Part Three HERE.


Now let’s discuss how to fill out your character with some backstory, faults, contradictions, and conflict.

iStock_000014115888LargeBackstory

Now that we have the basics of your character and who they are at the beginning and end, it’s time to fill in the middle.

We do that with backstory. Why is your character the way they are?

Remember those personality flaws, fears, and annoying habits you created earlier? Now it’s time to find out where they came from.

The reason behind the flaw is what makes it interesting.

Ex: Lena from “Beautiful Creatures” is afraid of falling in love because of the curse on her family that tells her she’ll turn evil and hurt the people she cares about.
That’s more interesting than just being too shy to ask a guy out.

Like an iceberg, most of the backstory you come up with will never appear on the pages, but it will make your character who they are. 


Depressed young homeless womanFaults

Nobody likes perfect characters. They’re boring.

Every character needs a few faults.

Make a list of 5 faults your character has – let’s go deeper than not being able to make a free throw.

Personality flaws: unreliable, eccentric, immoral, volatile.

Fears: common or complex – Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes got him in trouble a few times.

Weaknesses: unemotional, domineering, perfectionist.


IMG_0454Contradictions

Faults aren’t enough. Your character needs to be contradictory at times.

Why? No real person behaves the way they should all the time.

We do things we know are wrong, go against our own beliefs, and do the opposite of what we intended to do.

This can go the other way too. Does your bad guy had a soft spot?

No one is all good or all evil. Your characters need to have a mix of both.


Man with SwordConflict

Every good character needs plenty of conflict, not just from situations they find themselves in, but internal conflict as well.

Go back to your list of fears…

Which of these fears will your character face and try to conquer in your story?

While trying to overcome the main conflict in the story, your character must also overcome internal conflicts that are holding them back.

If they don’t, their character arc won’t be completed.


Full, rounded out characters can make or break a story. Giving your character a life outside the story will help them come alive on the pages for your readers.

Creating a Protagonist with Depth:Part 2

If you haven’t read Part One of this series, you can find it HERE.

Now…on with the show!

In PART TWO of this series, we’ll be talking about Stereotypes and Archetypes. If you’re not sure what one or both of these are, have no fear, they’ll be explained, and we’ll also talk about whether they should or shouldn’t be used and how to tell the difference.

StripedShirtWomanStereotypes

What are Stereotypes and why should you be careful when using them?

Stereotypes

  • A character that is so ordinary or unoriginal that they seem like an oversimplified version of a person, class, gender, etc.

Basically, this means the character is one dimensional. What readers see is what they get. There’s nothing deeper to their thoughts, personalities, or motivations. Simply put, these are not the most interesting characters. Certainly not what you want to model your Main Character after!

Why should you avoid this?

  • Stereotypes are rarely accurate. Not only can they be offensive, they make for poor characters because readers can guess exactly what they will think, do, say, or respond. That’s boring.

There are times when Stereotypes are used effectively in fiction. These are usually your secondary or tertiary characters who aren’t integral to the plot and provide “filler” in a scene or situation. They don’t add to the story, particularly, or move the plot along, and usually have very little page time.

Even when writing these types of characters, be careful to avoid writing a character that draws too heavily on ideas that may be found offensive or off putting. Stereoptypical character should be used very sparingly, even when writing secondary or tertiary characters.

Gabriel with swordArchetypes

What are archetypes and should you use them?

Archetypes

  • A typical character, action, or situation that seems to represent a universal pattern of human nature

Are they bad?

  • Archetypes can be used effectively when done right. For example, the “Hero,” “Innocent Youth,” or “Mentor” characters appear in many works of fiction.

Fantasy and Science Fiction often use archetypal characters, and you also see them quite frequently in comic book storylines as well. Popular examples would included Darth Vader and Anakin/Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars,” The Giver and Jonas from “The Giver,” and Sauron, Gandalf, and Frodo from “The Lord of the Rings.”

  • The challenge is creating an archetype without falling into stereotype. Even if your character is following an archetypal pattern, they still need to be complex and unpredictable at times.

In comic some comic books, the hero and villain are intentionally portrayed as stereotypical archetypes. Such as, the villain is ALL evil while the hero is ALL good. In such stark good vs. evil storylines, this works very well. Many other comics prefer to use more complex heroes and villains, which is what fiction/prose writers want to accomplish as well. No villain is completely evil and no hero is undeniably pure. There has to be more to the story, deeper reasons, secrets, hidden desires, and more layers than your readers can see in one glance to make sure you’re writing a well rounded and interesting archetype.

Next up is Character Arcs…what they are, how to use them, and what they will help you accomplish. In the mean time, I’d love to hear your examples of stereotypical and archetypal characters from books or comics you’ve read!