Pretend your main character isn’t there

You may have developed your main character, but what would your supporting characters be doing if they weren’t there?

As one novel flies the nest, there’s another poking its beak out of the egg.

Its working title is Echo, but so far it’s nothing more than a concept, some exciting developments I must include and two main characters whose story it is.

But I’m not going to do any more work on those two yet. My next job is to look at the other main characters around them – the people who are important, but whose change and resolution is not on the same scale as the MCs’. Not Lizzie and Darcy, but all the Bingleys, other Bennets, Wickhams et al.

What are they doing without my MCs?

Echo won’t be their story, but I’m going to start with them – and what they want to do if my MCs aren’t there. They will have aims, goals, agendas, worries, people they adore, people they loathe, rivals and scores to settle.

It’s a little like what mystery and crime writers do. They create a murder or other crime, then add the people who are investigating, or feretting out what’s going on, perhaps getting into trouble with it themselves.

Then add MCs… and stir

But my MCs aren’t going to be investigator, observer types. They have needs of their own and will get into the biggest trouble of all. Once I add those to the other characters who already have full lives… it should be a good ride.

Writing in a vacuum

Too many writers get into difficulties because they start the other way round. They have an MC who is minutely drawn but seems to exist in a vacuum. It can be a struggle to write because it feels as if the character is walking through an undecorated TV studio with only the props that immediately fly into the writer’s mind – a milk bottle, say. Or the people who pop up to help something along – a mother or a boss.

To write your MC well you also have to write their world – and the most significant factors in that world are not where the corner shop is, but the lives of the other people. If you make them up as you go along it can be a huge mental effort, especially if you need to create people with credible lives.

So the more complete your other characters are, and their problems, the easier it is to throw in your main one. Also, the supporting players will be less like puppets of the main trajectory.

By seeing what they would do without my MCs, I can make sure that when I throw them in, they really start some trouble.

Start your story as if your characters didn’t exist, then add them – and you’ll have a lot more fun.

What do you do to flesh out your world beyond the main characters? Share in the comments!

Thank you, Atmasphere, for the pic

In case you’re curious, my novel My Memories of a Future Life launches on August 30th!

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  1. #1 by Toni Rakestraw (@ToniRakestraw) on August 7, 2011 - 8:41 pm

    Wonderful post, Roz! It is so important that all the characters are well-fleshed. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

    • #2 by rozmorris on August 7, 2011 - 8:42 pm

      Gosh, that post had barely dried! Thanks for dropping by, Toni!

  2. #3 by Zelah Meyer on August 7, 2011 - 9:04 pm

    Unfortunately I can’t find the book of stage anecdotes to find the details but I know there is a tale of a drunk actor failing to turn up on stage to play Hamlet. Allegedly they performed the play without him and someone remarked that it was ‘greatly improved’ as a result!

    Both my stand alone novel and my trilogy are more ensemble pieces at present. I could take out any one of the four main (good) characters in my trilogy and the others would still have the motivation and possibly ability to complete their goal. It would be a heck of a lot harder though. Only one of them could be removed without seriously causing problems for the others in succeeding in their ambitions.

    My current problem seems to be making my protagonists stand out enough from the crowd rather than making the crowd noise louder!

    • #4 by rozmorris on August 8, 2011 - 7:05 am

      Zelah, that’s hilarious about Hamlet! Shakespeare audiences are so well behaved, though. I can imagine people might think it was postmodern or something.

      Hmmm. If you could take some of your characters out and it wouldn’t affect the story, that seems like a sign…

  3. #5 by Jonathan Moore on August 7, 2011 - 10:27 pm

    Hi Roz,

    Good advice – I shall apply it specifically to the second half of my work still in progress, where the main characters meet up with a whole new bunch of folk with their own issues.

    By the way, I used to have a PDF of NYN on my old laptop, but it died on me. Having looked at your sales bit on this blog I can’t see how a chap in the UK can get anything other than the Kindle version – and I’m not that advanced. Can a Kindle edition exist on my (new) laptop as a PDF?

    Cheers for now (and good luck with the launch of MMOAFL)

  4. #7 by Elle Strauss on August 7, 2011 - 11:22 pm

    This is great advice. The most enjoyable books to read are the ones where are the characters are interesting. Thanks!

    • #8 by rozmorris on August 8, 2011 - 7:08 am

      Characters, characters, characters, Elle… can’t go wrong if you centre everything on them!

  5. #9 by 5kidswdisabilities on August 8, 2011 - 12:31 am

    What an AWESOME picture to go with the post!!!!

  6. #11 by Gene Lempp on August 8, 2011 - 10:11 am

    Love the opening picture, I have a quite from the same artist. Enjoy his work.

    This idea, starting with the secondary players first is a great idea. I’ve been struggling through the same thing but was having difficulty meshing everyone together. I’m going to try your suggestion out. Thanks, Roz!

    • #12 by rozmorris on August 8, 2011 - 11:06 am

      Thank you, Gene! I’m really looking forward to playing with those characters in a deliberate way. Have fun.

  7. #13 by Pat Newcombe on August 8, 2011 - 10:29 am

    Great idea, Roz. Will try it out with my next book. Good luck with the book!

    • #14 by rozmorris on August 8, 2011 - 11:05 am

      Thank you, Pat! Good luck with yours, next and now.

  8. #15 by Sally on August 8, 2011 - 11:20 am

    An intriguing idea! I have no new novel ideas, so I tested your idea on my current one, and found that taking out my MCs actually killed the novel. At first I thought, uh-oh, then remembered that my supporting characters are written expressly to represent the ordinary; and since my MCs have extraordinary problems I don’t (and can’t) really give my supporting characters proper storylines of their own. But that’s just the way it is in this case. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad sign if my novel falls apart without the MCs. At least, I hope not! 😀

    • #16 by rozmorris on August 8, 2011 - 12:21 pm

      Oh no, I’ve broken your novel! Actually no, that’s an interesting point you’ve made, Sally. Not least that every novel makes its own rules. But presumably your supporting characters still have lives they would normally be living, even if they’re dull. That’s the test.

      • #17 by Sally on August 8, 2011 - 1:24 pm

        Yes, they do have their own lives, and they’re all more settled, making my main protagonist stick out for her lack of ability to settle. Their lives may be dull, but they’re nearly all likeable as characters.

  9. #19 by Ey Wade on August 8, 2011 - 12:20 pm

    Nice post. This is something I am doing. I have a blog site just for my characters where they are interviewed, share their views on the ‘real’ world, their likes or dislikes of what the author (me) has them doing, and just recently, discussing the entrance of a character for my newest book. The concept really keeps you on your toes. Now I have the idea of a four book series, just from the one book-The Fishing Trip. The blog is called In the Chair

    Thanks for sharing.

    • #20 by rozmorris on August 8, 2011 - 2:27 pm

      I bet it keeps you on your toes – what a good idea. And a great name too.

  10. #21 by Carol Riggs on August 8, 2011 - 3:38 pm

    Wow, that’s a great observation. I know what you mean by some books seeming like the character exists in a vacuum…perhaps even in some of my own novels (gasp!). Always good to ponder what the other characters are doing meanwhile, behind the scenes. 🙂 Have a great week!

    • #22 by rozmorris on August 8, 2011 - 3:42 pm

      Thanks, Carol! I sometimes feel I’m in a vacuum when I’ve strayed into new territory with a novel, so I figured this will prevent the resulting agoraphobia…

  11. #23 by Jeffrey Russell on August 8, 2011 - 4:17 pm

    This is a very timely post for me, Roz. I’m midway through Act 1 of a new book and have realized (with help from Victoria Mixon, who’s editing the story) that it doesn’t have quite the sharpness or crackle to it I had anticipated after I’d finished the outline. Mostly because I haven’t made full use of the secondary characters, whose actions, lifestyles, and opinions are pivotal to the development of the two main characters. Re-thinking those characters as if the MC’s didn’t exist is a good idea. So – thanks!

    • #24 by rozmorris on August 9, 2011 - 6:53 am

      Hi Jeffrey! Glad to have ferreted out your problem! And Victoria just put a message on Google Plus approving of the post so you’re set to go!

    • #25 by Victoria Mixon on August 9, 2011 - 4:46 pm

      Yes, you have a lot of close secondary characters, Jeffrey, and part of the richness of your story is the historical setting, the influences of society on the protagonists. You’re in a position of needing to represent society as a whole through specific characters–one of those sleights-of-hand upon which s much of great fiction is based.

      • #26 by rozmorris on August 9, 2011 - 5:19 pm

        Sleight of hand… I often think we’re not that far removed from stage magicians. You think I’m showing you this, but really I’m showing you that…

  12. #27 by Krissy Brady (@krissybrady) on August 8, 2011 - 10:18 pm

    What an interesting concept! It’s almost like you knew I was stuck on chapter 6 because of a secondary character, lol! I’m going to try taking my MC out of the mix to just focus on my secondaries and see what transpires. 🙂 Then, the fun part: how is my MC going to react?

    • #28 by rozmorris on August 9, 2011 - 6:54 am

      Thanks, Krissy…. Writers know how other writers get stuck…

  13. #29 by Diana Jackson on August 9, 2011 - 4:26 pm

    Interesting advice Krissy. I end up being very fond of all my characters, they feel part of the family (good and bad) but the danger is that, knowing them so well, am I describing them to my readers in enough depth. I hope my pleasure of spending time with my main and secondary characters comes over in my writing. I will bear your comments in mind though thanks

  14. #30 by Charlotte Rains Dixon on August 9, 2011 - 5:00 pm

    Really helpful idea, Roz. One of the issues I had with my novel that I had to go back and fix, was exactly what you write about–my main character nearly existed in a vacuum. As I begin my next novel, I’m taking this advice to heart.

    • #31 by rozmorris on August 9, 2011 - 5:21 pm

      Glad to have helped, Charlotte! I think it takes away some of the more daunting aspects of starting a new book with new people in a new place. Good luck!

  15. #32 by Ollin on August 10, 2011 - 4:14 pm

    Best advice I heard all week. Totally true. As a first novelist I made that mistake. Then I had to go back and flesh out the supporting characters anyway.

    It’s probably easier to do what you did. I’m going to try that next time.

    • #33 by rozmorris on August 10, 2011 - 5:13 pm

      Thanks, Ollin – it really does make everything easier!

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