Thursday, February 27, 2014

How to Write a Novel Part Six

James O. Born

We've gone through a lot these past six weeks.  We have come to understand what it takes to get our heads on straight and comprehend what we want to say when we start our blockbuster novel.  We’re not quite ready for experimental literature, so were going to follow the three act structure.  Our characters should be deep and interesting with flaws as well as positive traits.  The hero and the antagonist should be equal and have the ability to cause each other serious damage.  And we haven't even got the plot or story yet.
No, I'm afraid we need one more week on characters.  They're just that important.  So we talked about good guys and bad guys.  Basically main characters.  But are they the only two people in your novel?  I doubt it.  Aside from a few books and movies over the years, usually involving some form of nuclear devastation or a worldwide plague, every story has a number of people in it; especially the more realistic police or legal thrillers.
So now we have to think about secondary characters.  But not too many.  There is no set rule on this, but my feeling is once you get past eight or nine named characters things can get confusing.  Especially if some of the names are similar.  I read a review of one of my novels once where someone pointed out I used the same letters to start last names.  It was just a little quirk I had developed, but didn't realize.  I worked so hard at making the characters unique, I screwed up and left their names similar.  There is just so much to keep track of with characters.
The beauty of secondary characters is they can be completely and wildly quirky.  They can talk in rhyme, if that's how you want it to be.  That may not work for a main character, but to have a secondary character with some sort of brain trauma, which has forced them to speak in rhymed verses would be interesting.  At least to me.  And the beauty of writing your own novel is you can explore those kinds of characters.
The secondary characters are intended to support, not overshadow the main characters.  They can help in the hero's quest, but they can't complete it.  Just as they can assist a villain and do a lot of dirty work, but they shouldn't be the brains of the operation.
The secondary characters are what turn good books into great books.  They mark the author as someone with imagination and attention to detail.  I love the supporting cast.  Not just in books, but in TV and movies well.  It's always the goofy brother or the ditzy girlfriend that makes me laugh and keeps me interested in the story.
But secondary characters can also provide great motivation.  If you don't believe me, start a story with a wisecracking, amiable sidekick and see what happens when he gets killed in a shootout with two escaped convicts.  Suddenly the story went from important to personal and you feel it viscerally, rather than interpreted cognitively.
Try a love story without a supporting cast getting in the way of your two star-crossed lovers.  Even a story about cavemen would have a character who wanted to run the tribe and keep the hero from successfully completing his quest.
The other important thing to remember is that no sidekick realizes there are sidekick.  Every character is the hero of their own story.  Just like we talked about last week with villains, no villain realizes they’re a villain.  They think they're justified their actions.  A sidekick doesn't realize they’re only a minor part of a larger story.  To them the protagonist is off doing their own thing while our supporting character is living their life.
Think about the world we live in now.  Are you someone else's sidekick?  Do you have sidekicks?  Who is the comic relief in your life?  Who's your good friend who gives you advice that is always wrong, but you listen anyway?
The beauty of writing your own novel is that in real life you may not be able to fix those things or say what you want at the right time.  When you have a year, two years, or maybe even five years to write your great novel, you can't get the right phrase out at just the right moment and fix all the little things that annoy you in real life.  You can even fix them by killing someone.  That is a scary and awesome ability.  Just remember, the consequences.  In fiction and in real life.

That's what we can talk about next week: consequences.


  1. You should teach a class. Simple and to the point. I like it.

  2. I love this. Will you finish my novel, James O?

  3. Not sure I entirely agree that sidekicks don't realize they're sidekicks. Some do, some don't. Some narrate, as with Watson in Holmes and Archie Goodwin in Nero Wolfe, yes?

  4. If I keep writing this blog I won't finish my own novel.