Friday, January 24, 2014

Don't Forget Your Second Banana: Secondary Characters in Your Novel

Quick, think about the last book you've just loved. The one you've told all your friends about. You probably have a lot of reasons why you love it, but let's focus on just one.

The heroine's (or hero's) second banana (s). Their BFF's. Their sidekicks. Their adversaries.

Secondary characters are often orphans, i.e., neglected by their creators. Put in place so that the hero or heroine can accomplish some story goal. In other words, secondary characters are often underdeveloped and boring.

I mean, we spend so much time on our main characters, getting them just right, and that is an exhausting process. 

Think back on that beloved book I just asked you about. One that immediately comes to mind for me is Tracy Brogan's Crazy Little Thing, which I adored on about a hundred different levels. That book is still circulating around my Jazzercise class (since September). I will probably never see it again, but that's okay. The thing is, my friends and I are still talking about two characters in that book, the heroine Sadie's fantastic cousin Fontaine and her totally eccentric Aunt Dody. They are complex, three-dimensional, crazy characters who clearly touched our hearts. 

In Jen Probst's The Marriage Bargain, the heroine Alexa's best friend Maggie is not on scene very much but you can't help loving her when she is. Her personality shines from the page. (No wonder she got her own book :)

I looked for some wisdom from Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction to help answer the question, what makes these secondary characters memorable?

Maass says it's not a matter of making a character beautiful or dangerous because what is beautiful or seductive or dangerous is not the same for everyone. 

He believes it is the IMPACT the secondary character has on the main character that makes that character special. 

Secondary characters must be EXAMINED or they will be BLAND. They must be out-of-the-box. Not a stereotyped Best Friend or Bad Guy or Bad Girl Next Door. They must have UNEXPECTED layers that take your reader by SURPRISE.  

How do we make these characters DEEPLY HUMAN? Maass suggests giving them internal conflicts and looking at them though your protagonist's eyes. What is a defining moment in their relationship? How has this character changed your protagonist? What's one thing your hero will never understand about their friend? How does your heroine resist this person? Are these characters stereotypical or do they surprise us with their unexpected, human qualities?

For more on how to beef up your secondary characters, see The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass, Chapter Two, Characters Who Matter.

 "Sunshine on My Bananas."

Monday, January 13, 2014

Goals are Good

I was thinking about organizing myself for 2014.

The past few years, I've looked forward to YA writer Katy Upperman's yearly blog post on goals. You can read it and while you're at it, also check out her link to a great post goal setting here.

Katy taught me the importance of setting monthly goals, which I write down and keep in front of me on my desk. I also write yearly writing goals and tuck them into the back of my Bible. Because can you really forget anything you tuck into the back of your Bible?

I am a closet hoarder. From the outside, my house looks pretty clean and neat. But look in any closet and dear Lord! Here are some organizational problems I have and how I vow to resolve them and become a better, more organized person in 2014:

--I will keep no more than fifty emails in my inbox at one time. Chuckle. That's all I'm saying about that one.

--I will stop compulsively saving decorating magazines which are in two giant piles taking up room in my closet. I don't know why I do this, other than looking at beautiful things makes me…happy. But the piles are out! And they will take some time to reaccumulate.

--I will stop shoving things in my front hall closet so guests can actually put their coats there instead of on the back of the living room couch. Stash nothing, toss everything, right?

--I will stop buying books and hiding them under the bed. My friends know I almost kicked this habit a year ago, but the pile is ba--ack, bigger and better than ever, even though I am using my kindle more and more. If I was stranded in my room for years, let's just say lack of reading material would not be a problem.

--I will stop allowing the mail pile to take over my kitchen. I know, I know. Handle it once, sort it right away, pitch everything possible. Sounds so simple, right?

--I will call the 800 numbers to stop delivery of half my catalogs, most of which I hoard in a pile and then end up recycling before I even look at them.

--I have to clean my attic. It is loaded with fake flower arrangements, another compulsion.

--I will stop buying fake flower arrangements. Even though I love them because they are colorful and bright and make me happy in a city where it is cloudy a lot of the year.

--Also, are those not-yet-born grandchildren ever going to play with their parents' toys cluttering my attic? What about those precious dog-eared children's books I just can't seem to part with, remembering all those wonderful hours of reading stories to my kids?

--I will take my recycle bags to the grocery story every time. Every time, that is, that my kids don't toss them out of the car at random to make more from for themselves and their stuff.

--And even take recycle bags to other shopping, like at the mall, which I never do. Why not?

--If I get under contract this year, I will pay someone to deep clean my house once a month because it will no longer be worth my time. Actually, I almost never deep clean anyway! My daughters and son were helping me do this long-neglected work over break. The oldest asked, what's a baseboard? Very scary.

--I will try yoga for stress relief. Just…because.

--I will eat more foods that I can't pronounce like quinoa and jicama and make sure half my plate is veggies at every meal. (Another chuckle.)

--I will be more balanced. I will read more of those amazing books waiting in my kindle or under my bed. I will stop obsessing over whether I am good enough, fast enough, talented enough and simply do what author Robin Covington posted on Facebook one day (and this might be a paraphrase): Do Your Best and Try Not to Suck.

--That is the best advice I read all year. As I prepared to turn in edits to my agent for the first time this past fall, I was terrified. Every morning I would sit at my computer and think, dear God, someone is going to read this and freeze. So I wrote that little saying down and put it in front of me. Because that's all any of us can do. And there is some kind of great relief in that. Just do your best and try not to suck. Simply saying that takes some cosmic burden off my shoulders and allows me to forge on.

Happy new year, everyone. I wish you health, happiness and peace in the year ahead.

Speaking of fake flower arrangements…one of my faves.