Using Minor Characters, Sidekicks, and Flat Characters to Drive Your Story | Fiction School Podcast #7

Using Minor Characters, Sidekicks, and Flat Characters to Drive Your Story | Fiction School Podcast #7

Hey there, Writers!  A couple of quick news items: Big sale on Baker’s YA novel The Battle Hymn Blues –get the ebook for just 99 cents this week!

And if you’re a listener in the Northern California area, check out Jody’s new play, Shrewed! an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.  Opening this week! Playing Oct. 18-27, 2013 at Mendocino College.

OKAY, ON WITH THE SHOW (NOTES)

The sidekick totally makes the scene.
The sidekick totally makes the scene.

Ever wonder why everybody wants to be Chewbacca or Princess Leia for Halloween, and nobody wants to go as Luke Skywalker?  People may love Harry Potter’s character, but we spend a lot more time (and get a lot more jazzed) arguing about Dumbledore or–especially–about Snape.

That’s the power of a good minor character.  They have an energy and a spark that’s crucial to good fiction.  They help us see ourselves in the story.  They make the fictional world feel real.

This week, we’re talking sidekicks, minor characters, and flat characters: how to use them effectively to drive your story, how they can complement your main characters, and the secret ingredients they can add to your story that the main character’s can’t.

SHOW NOTES FOR FICTION SCHOOL PODCAST EPISODE 7:

  • The thing about writing background characters? It’s really FUN.  It’s Tommy’s favorite part of writing characters.
  • Sidekicks can drive the story because they don’t have the same investment or tensions as the protagonist
  • They can freelance and add a spark and energy to the story
  • Jody mentions Shoe from Baker’s Stealing the Show, and how he has all the qualities that the main character, Lewis, doesn’t–that’s why the minor characters are so key.  They complement and complete others.
  • Another way to look at it: minor characters can do the dirty work the main character can’t.  For instance…
  • Writers should probably never have your main character be the funny person.  It looks like the character’s trying too hard; the minor characters can do that job much more effectively.
  • We start to wonder: are minor characters and sidekicks the best part of stories?  In The Sun Also Rises, nobody likes Jake; everybody likes Lady Brett.
  • Jody enjoys writing the nemesis, not the main antagonist but the contagonist, the mean girls in the hall, etc., who aren’t necessarily evil, but just on a different agenda than our main character.
  • (This also marks the once-per-show moment that Jody teaches us an awesome new vocabulary word.)
  • Sometimes flat characters can drive the story just by being mean, normal people, not necessarily the antagonist
  • Flat characters make the world feel real, because that’s what the real world is like–we don’t know everybody below the surface.
  • The danger of using these flat characters to drive the story is falling into stereotypes.  The best fictional flat characters surprise the reader, too.
  • We have to be really efficient with the characterization when writing minor characters, so playing against stereotypes or being instantly bold works for them, while the protagonist’s characterization can move more slowly because they get more air time.
  • Sometimes minor characters can become major characters, especially in a series or serial.  They have something that we don’t see when we first begin writing them.
  • Han Solo, minor character bossBaker goes on a way too long soliloquy about Han Solo
  • Minor characters can have a character arc, too, but it doesn’t  have to be the same vein as the protagonist’s.  It’s more powerful if it’s not.
  • Jody has insights about rewriting Shakespeare in her production of Shrewed!, and how she wrote characters for specific actors.
  • The key is writing minor characters into subplots that are integral to the main plot; if the minor characters’ arcs are too far removed from the main tension of the story, they feel unimportant or tangential and detract from the story.
  • Tommy’s rule for minor characters: Only give somebody a name if they deserve it.  The reader can’t keep up with every name for every person.
  • In Nazareth, North Dakota, there’s a sort of Greek chorus of old men who all think alike.  They don’t need names; as a contrast, in Song of Fire and Ice and Tolkein, Baker and Tommy couldn’t keep the names straight so it became too distracting to keep reading.  (Please don’t hate us!)
  • Who are the best sidekicks in stories, classic fiction, or stories? Tommy chooses Queequeg, a minor character who doesn’t even say anything.
  • Jody goes with Watson of Sherlock Holmes–as a complementary character to Holmes’ eccentricities.
  • Baker goes with As I Lay Dying’s Vardaman, who doesn’t understand what’s going on but reveals lots by how he describes things.
  • Every novel is an insane asylum in some ways.  Tommy describes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a book with all flat characters.
  • Do antagonists work as flat characters?  In serious fiction, they’re disappearing in modern writing.  Now, we see a lot of antiheroes, who have both good and bad qualities.
  • It may be too easy to have a flat villain going “Mwaaaahhahaha!
  • Villains and antagonists are more powerful if they have a softer, possibly good side to them.  That intensifies how hateful and memorable the antagonist is.
  • We all wonder if, deep down, we all really want to be the bad guy.  C’mon, you know you do, too.
  • Much of modern fiction is about our battle against ourselves, which demands a round character.
  • Jody recounts her acting history, when she finally got to play the lead in a school play, but all the minor characters got all the laughs.  The main character is the anchor for the reader to pull for, but we can’t  pull for them in a vacuum. They have to react and respond to the world.
  • We end the show arguing over who’s are the sidekicks and who’s the hero of the Fiction School Podcast.  Nobody wants to be the hero.

Alright, that’s the show for this week.  Remember, grab The Battle Hymn Blues for just 99 cents this week!  And if you’re in NorCal, check out Shrewed! at Mendocino College!

Happy writing, everybody.

 

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