Friday, February 22, 2008

Me Me Me, or, Them Pesky Ants

According to the program this panel had Patty Briggs (congrats Patty on your NYT best seller status!) Ted Butler, Bobbie Hull, Charity Heller Hogge and me.  BTW, Charity posted a great quote on her blog:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” ~Mark Twain

Yes, yes, yes.

I don't know if I'm right, but I still feel that if your background characters are rushing to the forefront, it's not a bad idea to make them more major characters.  If this happens with every single minor character and your whole work is littered with people more fascinating than your main character, find out what makes them so much more compelling than your mc and fold some of their traits into the mc.  A flaccid mc is a serious problem and beefing them up may solve the whole problem.

If not, maybe you're dodging the hard parts.  Sometimes it's so much nicer to go off on a tangent than to deal with the immediate problem.  I think Patty was saying at one point that she goes ahead and writes all that stuff, and then later cuts it out.  She finds that sometimes it's easier to use that tangent to transition yourself mentally to what happens next than to try to get from point A to point B without the assistance of a minor character momentarily taking over.  Eventually, though, you do have to write that hard part.  The hard parts are what deepen novels, so it's worth the effort.

At some point we got carried away in a discussion about plotting and discussed outlining vs. not outlining, the Snowflake method, and how plot supports the mc.  It still relates.  If your mc doesn't have enough motivation and enough going on in their lives then of course everyone else is going to be offering their life story to help fill in the dead spaces.

Another Patty suggestion is that if you have a really good minor character that won't shut up and that you love, promise them a book of their very own.  That often satisfies them.

Bad guys are often more compelling than good guys and the minor characters cropping up to take over the scenes is a symptom of this.  Again, I think it's a good idea to consider changing main characters if necessary.  Often we pick the wrong pov character and it's really hard to let go of that, especially when you've written 60,000 words or more of wrong pov.  It's a little easier to let go if you're a prolific writer, but even if you're not, give it a try in a separate file and see what happens.  If you grab the right pov character it's possible that you'll forget all about those hard-earned words in the other version and fly past your original word count.

Minor characters taking over can also be a sign of overwriting.  Minor characters shouldn't be elaborately described.  If you become acquainted with archetypal constructs then you can whip up a minor character in two sentences, have them do their part, and shuffle them off their literary coil without making them a person the reader comes to care about and misses when they disappear.  Patty mentioned that she has more trouble with female minor characters.  It makes sense.  In the genre we see lots of male characters, and quite a few female protagonists (though not as many as men) but there isn't a deep well from which to draw female characters.  For this we may have to turn to chick lit.  Chick lit features all depths and heights of women.  It's not that we have to learn about them.  We know the stereotypes.  But we need to be reminded of them.  An example is the innkeeper.  Everyone has an innkeeper in their mind.  As a writer, all you have to do is use the word innkeeper and dress him up with a few differences to make him pop (don't be lazy and just keep him generic) and you're golden.  Once you're reminded of female characters that aren't the bossy bitch or the the mighty warrior or the fainting princess, you're on your way to building minor characters without writing a three page essay on them and making the readers care enough to want to follow them around.

We had a great discussion on purpose.  Your main character really needs a purpose, even if it's to hide from their troubles and do as little as possible.  

Which reminds me, we talked about that in the character conflict panel too--that believable characters will often do the bare minimum and fight like heck to stay inside their comfort zone.  What they do outside their comfort zone is the fun part, and one of the considerations an author makes when they design conflicts for their work.  Watching a character fight to get back inside their comfort zone is often a missing or belittled dimension in writing, so think about that the next time your character is battling the throb monster and see what happens.  I also missed great commentary on internal conflict being as interesting as external conflict on the conflict panel.  Gah!  My brain is mush.  I'll just quickly add here that internal conflict can be very compelling, but you have to learn to discriminate internal conflict from naval gazing.  Also, it's more interesting and real to watch a teenager angst than it is to watch an adult angst.  Even a teen can become tedious, though, so be careful with that stuff.  

Now back to the purpose thing.  If your main character's only purpose in speculative fiction is solely to:
1. Foil the antagonist, or
2. Get married and have kids, or
3. Get laid, or just about any other one-dimensional purpose
then you'd better make that purpose more interesting than it appears at face value.  For example, if you have a really great antagonist who may also be a good guy and they've been playing hunt and hunted for a long time because of something in their history that has twists and dark spots and will have a fresh reveal that doesn't cause the audience to roll their eyes right out of their heads, you may have something.  Same with getting married and having kids.  Much harder to do when you're the last person on Earth, or there's a fertility issue, etc.  The purpose has to count, and it has to be something the readers want to read about to the exclusion of those pesky minor characters.  This is so important, I suggest that you think about your favorite main characters of all time and list their purposes.  Each will probably have more than one, so go to town.  Write it down.  Do some rereading.  Once you get going on this, the minor characters will be what they're supposed to be--a fascinating part of the setting.

Last but not least, a suppose:  Patty wondered if writers who outline have more trouble with the sense that their characters are out of their control than writers who write without an outline.  It makes sense to me.  If you outline, then characters will sometimes not cooperate and 'not do what they're supposed to do.'  If you don't outline, there's no 'supposed to.'  There's only what it is that they do.  ?

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