We’ve been reading a lot of story submissions and contest entries at Pulp Literature this past week. You writers are doing so many things well.
Again and again I see examples of strength in developing characters, and one of the ways you’re doing it is setting up the character for growth by establishing flaws and problems at the start. And, as a counterpoint to this, showing us hints of the hero’s inner strength and goodness at the same time. Continue reading
I’m a great admirer of authors who make exceptional use of supporting characters. A cast of extras is fun to write, of course. And supporting characters can say with charm, or the complete lack of it, what the character wouldn’t. But their magic goes deeper than that. Here are three steps farther than snappy dialogue…
1. We should hear a supporting character state the theme of the story early on, as in Robert Sawyer’s brilliant “Fallen Angel”, where the father tells his daughter Angela that there was nothing to fear. “We’ll be so high up we’ll catch God’s eye.’’ But she does fear, and the story turns on her fear and what she does because of it.
2. Supporting characters force the protagonist to show the readers his heroic qualities in contrast with their less heroic aspects. They make sure we don’t miss the hero’s flaws, either. Take a look at the many Brothers who have taken the Black on the Wall in Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Their leader Jon Snow is so remarkably steadfast and true that it takes an army of supporting characters to bring out his weaknesses.
3. Supporting characters at their best force the protagonist – and antagonist – to make choices they would not have faced on their own, no matter how stubborn or brave they might be. I was just re-reading (for about the fiftieth time since I got it in my stocking at fourteen) Bel Kaufman’s amazing Up the Down Staircase. There’s not a character in there that doesn’t force young teacher Sylvia Barrett to make agonizing choices. That’s pretty rare craft in a book told through notes, letters, memos, and scribbles on the backboard.
What can your supporting characters do for your protagonist?
Robert Sawyer. Fallen Angel. Pulp Literature Press, Issue 7. Vancouver, 2014.
GRR Martin. A Game of Thrones. Bantam, 1996.
Bel Kaufman. Up the Down Staircase. Avon Books, New York. 1964.
“Standoffs keep the story going”. –Rob Edwards
Mind you, I do love a good fight. Battles in books are supreme acts of creative imagination. The best are exquisitely described and as gripping as a hand around my throat. When they’re over, satisfied and smiling as long as the hero won, I put the book down. I think, Wow.
By contrast, standoffs offer your main character a chance at multiple dilemmas, so that he or she is not choosing between a paltry two options. Yes-or-no has its place, but if used continually binary storytelling makes me want to throw the book across the room. With standoffs, you don’t simply have have fight-or-retreat. As Donald Maas* explained in an excellent workshop, a stand-off can make your character believably do what he would never do, going a long way in few words towards explaining how character development works throughout a story.
Standoffs … yes. Rob Edwards has it nailed. Standoffs are about struggles towards exchanges of power. Everything changes, but nothing is resolved. I turn the page. I think, What now?
I’m devouring CJ Sansom’s new Lamentation and, along with some ripsnorting fight scenes, there’s a fantastic standoff between Henry VIII and the hunchbacked lawyer sleuth Matthew Shardlake. Grand.
*If you ever get a chance at the Surrey International Writers Conference or anywhere else in the world, I recommend you attend Donald Maass’s powerful, inspiring and entertaining workshops.