Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Two Cent Tuesdays: When Secondary Characters Attack!

Here's an old blog entry from 2010 that describes a problem I had with  Betrayal Begets Blood, Tales of the Scarlet Knight, Volume 5, which was supposed to release this month but now has been out for months!

When I started out, I expected it’d be kind of short, maybe 250-300 pages.  It ended at over 400 pages or 131,000 words, which made it the second longest thing I ever wrote.  (NOTE:  I think the final draft is about 110,000 words.)  This isn’t because of my story arc;  the problem is that I’ve developed an overabundance of secondary characters.

In an entry I talked about how to downsize characters.  That works pretty well for the first book in the series.  The problem as you get to 4, 5, 8 books in a series is that you can’t do that very easily.  For obvious reasons you can’t combine characters who already exist–although I’ve done enough weird shit in this series that I might try it–so all you can do is kill them off.  Which I’ve already done.  Since the series started I’ve killed our hero Emma Earl’s boss, her aunt, her mentor, her best friend’s fiancee, and her weird friend Marie.  Still I find that my stories are increasingly becoming ensemble pieces instead of just focusing on Emma, her sidekick best friend, and whoever the villain would be.

This is because as the series goes on, the secondary characters who started life essentially as props, became actual characters with lives of their own.  It wasn’t something I consciously willed to happen, more like something that happened organically as things rolled along.

The best example in the series is that I introduced two old ladies whom Emma meets when she’s shopping for a formal dress.  It turns out the old ladies are witches who’ve lived for the last 500 years or so and help protect the magic armor Emma finds to become the superhero the Scarlet Knight.  One witch is named Agnes Chiostro and the other Sylvia Joubert–though they’re actually sisters with Agnes being the older one.

Now when things started, Agnes didn’t even have a first name and Sylvia didn’t have a last name.  Agnes was intended to be Emma’s adviser on magic stuff and Sylvia sort of her Q/Lucius Fox who would help her out with weapons or other gadgets.  They had really basic personalities–Agnes being the nice grandmotherly one and Sylvia being more of a gruff loner.  I gave them only a little bit of backstory in that Agnes was once married and Sylvia deals weapons as a sideline business.  That was it.

They weren’t featured too heavily in the second story, but then things started to snowball in the third one.  At the end Sylvia loses her left hand in a battle with an evil goddess, but otherwise didn’t change a lot.  At the end I had one of my brainstorms where I decided for whatever reason that Agnes has a sort of mid-mid-mid-life crisis when she’s nearly killed in the same battle and decides to make herself look young and hot.  That in turn set things in motion for the fourth story, where she meets a boy–and then a girl.  (It’d take too long to explain that sequence of events.)  This in turn makes Sylvia jealous and she decides to make herself young and hot and finds her own boyfriend.

Now in the fifth book things are really spinning out of control as I promoted Sylvia to a reluctant villain.  The reason the thing is going so damned long is that I’ve spent dozens of pages flashing back to the late 18th and early/mid 19th Centuries to tell the story of Agnes meeting her husband, who in turn has a covert affair with Sylvia, who in turn secretly gives birth to Agnes’ husband’s child, which she gives up for adoption, and who eventually is the great-to-however-many-times-grandmother of the book’s primary villain.  So not only are we greatly expanding Sylvia’s story, but in turn it expands Agnes’ as well.

The gist of all this is that in the first story the characters were assigned a fairly small role.  Now as the series grinds on, their roles have become expanded, and with that the characters themselves expand, developing more in-depth personalities and backstories.  That means in turn they take pages away from focusing on our hero.

Is that a bad thing?  Not entirely.  I mean by the fifth book we already know Emma Earl’s history.  (Which is sort of a combination of Batman/Spider-Man’s history.)  There’s really not anything new we can add to her backstory or her personality at this point.  That’s all been pretty much set in concrete by the fifth story.  So in a way it’s good–at least in my mind–that some of the other characters can pick up a little of the slack and make things seem more interesting and fresh, so it doesn’t entirely seem like I’m just using the same template story over and over again.

On the flip side, as I mentioned, it can take away some of our hero’s importance.  The last thing I want is to spread the story so thin among all these characters that our hero Emma becomes a secondary character herself.  The challenge then is to keep her at the forefront while allowing the others a little more face time.

Of course the easy thing to do would be not to expand the roles of secondary characters in the first place.  But then, as I mentioned, things can get stale.  One of the things that bugged me about the City Watch books of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett is that other than the main character Sam Vimes, none of the other characters really seemed to develop much.  A couple got promoted, but we didn’t really learn anything more about them.  In particular the werewolf character bugged me because every story she was in she’d bitch about being a werewolf, which seemed like her entire role in every story besides beating people up.  After a while I wanted a little personal growth.  Either that or let her fade away, but don’t give me the same spiel over and over again about how being a werewolf sucks–I heard you the first time!

The other real problem in my case is that some of the stuff I come up with in the fifth story conflicts with stuff in the first four stories.  That’s not a huge problem because none will ever be published.  Still, at some point I’d need to retroactively fix things.  But maybe by the eighth story things will largely be set in concrete.  Of course by then we’ll have introduced some more secondary characters.  Argh!

Anyway, if you don’t believe me about any of this, just think of “The Simpsons,” which is my favorite show.  When it started in 1989 you pretty much just had Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie.  Then along came a second wave of characters like Moe, Barney, Mr. Burns, Milhouse,  Smithers, Grandpa, Skinner, Chief Wiggum, Flanders, and others.  By the 21st season you have characters who started out as one-line jokes (Cletus the slack-jawed yokel, Disco Stu, ol’ Gil, crazy cat-throwing lady) who have now become recurring players.  Very few characters have been retired (Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz after Phil Hartman died, Maude Flanders and Bleeding Gums Murphy when they were killed off) but things haven’t gotten too out of control because each show generally focuses on one or more of the core Simpson family characters.  That probably explains part of why it’s been on for 21 years.

So in conclusion, it’s good to expand on secondary characters a little, but don’t let them take over.  All things in moderation.

6 comments:

  1. I think when secondary characters start to take over it's time to consider giving them their own novel.

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    1. I did that. You can read it here: http://sylviajoubert.blogspot.com/

      It's not formatted as a book because it's not officially part of the series, though I did include edited excerpts in the revised volume 5.

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  2. I disagree. YEAY, VERILY I HATH THROWN DOWN THE GAUNTLET AND CHALLENGED THE GREAT AND MIGHTY OFFUTT.

    But I do disagree. You're telling "Tales Of the Scarlet Knight" after all and expanding on the other characters helps flesh out the book. As long as it's interesting, who cares what the main character of the story is?

    Secondary characters have a way of taking over eventually anyway, especially if you're universe-building. Think of "Dune." Duncan Idaho is in all the books, and eventually I believe he became a main character in one of them, but lesser cults and characters rose up and became more important in the series. So long as they remain interesting, I don't have a problem with that.

    In looking at other series where that happened, I'm thinking of the original Star Wars, where Han Solo sure turned out to be a major guy but didn't seem maybe like he'd be the focus of the series. Minute for minute, I bet Han was on screen more than Luke, and way more than Leia, and yet people probably thought of them as the main characters.

    Plus, I'm with you on the secondary characters never growing. I liked the "Spellsinger" books, but the secondary characters (and the main character) never seemed to evolve much over the years.

    Maybe you could model your books more on Piers Anthony's "Xanth" series, where the main characters stick around only for a book or two and then make cameo appearances. I remember sometimes thinking as I read a new book in those series that I missed the old protagonist, only to like the new one and the fresh spin it put on it.

    So there's no right way to write things. Just keep telling good stories.

    Besides: Offutt's whole thing is elevating seemingly-secondary characters to major roles. As far as I can tell, every single person Offutt introduces in his books ends up having some kind of super-significant role. I read his books now like I watch "Law & Order": constantly assuming every background character is the main culprit or hero.

    (Which is a good thing. He's a good writer. So are you. The more I hear about the next books the more I resolve to get them, and I know that everyone says that to everyone who has a book, but I'm going to read them all, eventually. What I need is like a year off from everything, to just read. That should be a thing. We should all get to take a year off from everything and just read, and then go back to our lives. We could rotate it around so that not everybody gets the same year off. I would endorse this program.)

    Sorry this comment is more disjointed than usual. I was chasing Mr F through people's houses. Strangers' houses. Long story.

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  3. "The other real problem in my case is that some of the stuff I come up with in the fifth story conflicts with stuff in the first four stories. That’s not a huge problem because none will ever be published."

    Patrick, shame on you! First, be true to you're own story vision (story line). Be consistent. Now how would it look if Star Wars episodes 4, 5, 6, had discrepancies from 1, 2, 3 but the author said, It doesn't matter cuz these episodes are just back story and will never be published!"

    Granted, I read OLD outdated fantasy - and not comic books - but Have you read Ann McCaffrey? Jack Chalker? Pierce Anthony? Anne Rice? Is Thieve's World still circulating new issues? (Thieves World invited new/published authors to use its established world to introduce the author's own characters, or use existing characters with a new story line - as long the characters/setting/storyline was consistent with already published episodes.) Each of these author's write series books that uses a lot of the same characters. There is a hierarchy established of course, and the first couple three novels are about THE MC's, but a lot of secondary characters have their own books that use events and characters from other novels, but from a differing secondary character's perspective (as a MC in their own novel). And not ALL of the prior secondary or MC make an appearance in every novel.

    You spend a long time building a world, and a culture, and it only seem logical to elevate a few secondary characters once in a while, and maybe they will also come with a few secondary characters of their own. Doesn't mean you have to continue their story past their own book - or specific story line - but at least when they appear momentarily in another novel, you don't have to re-explore their whole back story.

    Same with absolute MC. They can appear in any other novel without explaining their back-story as long as they remain true to character and timeline. I can't tell you how many times I've read a stand alone novel that was part of a series and liked some of the important or secondary characters enough to find novels they had staring or bigger roles in.

    Regardless of whether you liked Harry Potter or not, one thing that JK's world building and characters did is to allow off shoot novels with some of the minor and not-so-minor characters.

    I agree Pat, sometimes secondary characters take over a story, and that is when they need their own novel. But sometimes its ok for secondary characters to just fade away without being killed off. Or explained away as to what happened to them.

    Sorry if I got on a soap box there; but serial novels are a favorite of mine, and I don't always read them for a specific MC; it is almost always the world building and consistency in characters that draws me and keeps me reading.

    Hmm, now I'm reading the above comments and have to say, Brian and I are thinking a lot alike here. Funny he mentions Xanth (Pierce Anthony is the author) too, and I had the same feelings about the MC/protagonists. Always something new and exciting, but kept consistent timelines and character profiles when already introduced characters was used.

    And Brian; I want the first year off! But I don't want to write reviews and stuff, I just want to read for pleasure again.

    ..........dhole

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    1. I really should have edited that line out. I did go back later and apply some retroactive continuity to make the first books line up to the later ones. And obviously they are published now.

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