Posts Tagged secondary character

Fictional characters – a lesson from Seinfeld

Dave has recently been developing a sitcom, which has led to interesting conversations about the characteristics of the form. To get a feel for it, we have been watching Seinfeld – and especially the season where they write a TV show ‘about nothing’.

At the risk of sounding precious, this phrase ‘A show about nothing’ seems to be the key to the entire sitcom form. Not just Seinfeld, but sitcoms generally. And more widely – which is why I’m bothering you with it here – I think some of its principles could be used to make all fictional characters a little more lifelike.

So – in a sitcom we generally watch characters in everyday life, doing their thing. There aren’t any big changes in the status quo (and if there are any coming in Seinfeld, please don’t tell me as we’re only on Season 4). The pleasure and entertainment comes from watching the characters deal with endless small stories and challenges, which are mainly caused by their personalities. (Yes, even in Red Dwarf.) It’s essential that the characters become pretty exasperated with each other, but only up to a point – no matter what happens, they continue to rub along together.

The mad neighbour Kramer isn’t going to move to a different block (or if he is, he’ll be back by the end of the episode). George louses up the TV deal with NBC with some agonisingly inept negotiating, but Jerry continues to work and hang out with him.

Equilibrium of irritation

In Seinfeld, as in most sitcoms, an abiding principle is that life goes on, relationships go on (think of the 1970s BBC sitcoms like The Good Life). Sitcoms are about people being themselves and accommodating each other in an equilibrium of irritation.

Of course, certain characteristics are exaggerated for comedy, but even so, the sitcom is very true to life, and it struck me that we can use the ‘equilibrium of irritation’ to add richness to characters in a story that has a bigger dramatic arc.

Obviously your main characters will go through a big change, but there will be other aspects of life in the story that don’t. These are sometimes underdeveloped – usually because we’ve been looking at the big picture. But instead, they could cause strife that is colourful, charming, exasperating and human. This could give plausible complexity to characters, and depth to the ordinary grift of their lives.

Again, Seinfeld is deliberately amplified for comedy – the neighbour is madder than most neighbours the rest of us have. George is a walking disaster. Seinfeld world isn’t intended to be 100% realistic. But there’s one aspect that I find very realistic – the way the characters rub along day to day.

The magazine episode

Here’s an example. On a magazine I worked on, I had a boss who I’ll call Jim. Jim was often alarmed at my zeal for rewriting articles to make them zap. He warned me gently that if I did that, the reporters might become slapdash because they knew I’d do a final polish.

I’d get in a huff, saying ‘I can’t leave the article in that state – look at all that dull repetition’.

Jim would say: ‘Just skim it to check it’s usable. We have a 120-page issue to get out, we don’t have time for fine editing and we need to leave the writing to the reporters’.

Fuming cloud over Roz’s head.

Jim’s other sub-editor, who I’ll call Wendy, had worked there for 10 years, knew all the routines, and worked according to Jim’s system. She skimmed the copy for obvious bloopers but didn’t wield the scalpel. But Wendy sometimes missed important mistakes and indeed Jim would often be exasperated at this.

And here we have the Sitcom of Jim. Life would never run smoothly. It had these two opposite characters, who created low-level strife on a weekly basis, and who he probably beefed about to his friends –  Roz who was going to upset the system and make the well-trained reporters think they could hand in rougher copy. And Wendy who knew all the systems but was slow and unreliable. And Jim just had to get along with us as well as he could.

The Sitcom of Jim had no arc or end. It was a set of personalities and values that aligned in some ways and clashed in others, and was utterly intrinsic to who we were.

The Sitcom of You

Life is full of dynamics like this, with families, friends, colleagues… All these people in our lives need certain amounts of circumvention and handling. There’s the close friend you can’t tell about your work troubles because they’ll simply tell you to get a different job. There are the old friends who can’t be invited to dinner with certain others because they irritate the bejesus out of them, or have politically incompatible views even though you love them dearly, or whose dietary preferences are too bizarrely restrictive to inflict on anyone else. (I note there’s a Seinfeld episode called The Dinner Party but I haven’t seen it yet – no spoilers, please.)

We are all playing the balancing acts of sitcoms in many areas of our lives, and these relationships will keep ticking along in the same constant way. This push-pull accommodation is the stuff of life. And in books, it’s often missing, especially with supporting characters – and so relationships might read as bland and undercooked.

The truth

Of course, you have to tailor this kind of material to fit with the tone. I’m not suggesting you add comedy willy-nilly, or deluge the reader with distracting trivialities. You may only need a very small amount of this kind of material. Indeed you might just keep it as developmental notes that let you write the characters with more knowledge, and keep it 90% under cover. Adjust to taste and the needs of your genre.

But this kind of material can create characters that live and breathe on their own, with independent life – instead of plot zombies.

And you never know – as with all developmental work, the sitcom jottings might blossom into something significant.

Thanks for the Seinfeld apartment pic Tony Hoffarth on Flickr

There’s a lot more about character development in the Nail Your Novel characters book.

And you might also like to know that Amazon has chosen the original Nail Your Novel for a special promotion. The Kindle edition is just USD1.99 right now. I’m not sure how long the promotion will last for as it’s controlled by them – so grab a copy now!



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Venice masterclass snapshots: 4 hidden enablers for your story

hidden techniques for writersI’m just back from a few days in Venice teaching a writing masterclass (I know, it’s a hard life). In my lectures, one subject I found I returned to repeatedly was the hidden clues that make a novel work. Readers often don’t realise they are there, and that means they’re hard for a writer to spot.

Does that sound vague? Let’s have some examples.


Readers have a strong sense of whether surprises are fair. Sudden fatal coronaries, floods, falling trees and brake failures have to be used with careful judgement because they are convenient for the writer. They must be foreshadowed so that they seem inevitable and surprising but not arbitrary.

So if you wanted to warm the reader up for a car crash, you could plant a hint much earlier in the novel that one of your characters is often fined for speeding, or that it’s Christmas and drunk-drivers are on the roads. Foreshadowing mustn’t be obvious, so you need to disguise your intentions by making the scene appear to perform some other function – such as a couple arguing about who will stay sober for the drive home.

Enough secondary and background characters so that the world is populated

Some characters seem to exist in a vacuum. They have no connections to other people outside the main action. But if you add, as appropriate to your genre, a few colleagues, neighbours, extended family members, they seem to acquire more reality.

You also need extra people to make public settings believable. When you describe your protagonist walking down the street where they live, add a little life – a person hauling a suitcase out of their front door, perhaps. If the scene takes place at the dead of night, add a cat hunkered down on the parapet. If your characters meet in a coffee bar, give us a snapshot of the stranger sitting in the window, tapping on a laptop.
Here, you can learn from the movies – you’ll almost never see a street scene or a coffee bar that doesn’t have an anonymous random person doing an ordinary thing. Without it, the scene would seem strangely empty, artificial. The same goes for novels.

Scene set-up

Many writers plunge into a scene’s action too abruptly. Although it’s good to get the story moving, we can also be disorientated if we don’t know who’s in the scene, how many people there are and what they are doing. Include this in your opening so that the reader can load it in their mind.


With themes we have to use a light touch. I see manuscripts where the writer is desperate to point out their clever theories that make their story look universal and weighty. The characters have a lot of conversations, about the theme. They see it on newspaper headlines or their Twitter feed. Indeed, the characters might seem to be enacting a series of examples the writer’s theme, instead of following their real, human urges.

Themes work best when they are covert, not lit in neon. So the clever writer will nudge the reader to notice them – perhaps with their choice of language, names, a symmetry in the characters’ situations. It’s certainly there, and it has to be placed carefully – but it is hidden.


All these details are easily missed by readers – and this is their very nature. They are usually smuggled in. They do their work in disguise, under the waterline. Without them, the world of the story might seem unconvincing, a scene might be confusing, a plot surprise may seem arbitrary, or the novel may seem hectoring instead of engaging.

3nyns(Psst… there’s more about these techniques in my plot book and my characters book.)

Let’s discuss! Have you come across these techniques? If you have, how did you become aware of them? Are there any others that you’d add?

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Troubleshoot your novel outline

514733529_d024f328b5_zAs you saw last week, I’m plotting The Mountains Novel on cards. I know the big picture – how it begins, where the characters can go and what the final note is. I’m now shuffling the events to get the strongest order and viewing the results with a critical eye.

Here’s what I’m looking for.

1 Finding the logic gaps

Is a story beat missing? Should a character react to an event? Is there a consequence I should cover?

2 Characters fitting the plot

Am I forcing a character to do something to suit the plot instead of what comes naturally to them? Is anyone behaving for the plot’s convenience, instead of the truth of the story? For instance, is someone doing something dumb so that the plot can advance?

This isn’t always bad, by the way. Sometimes characters do things that aren’t in their best interests or that spoil things for themselves – and it’s part of their complexity. And if they do, I need to make a feature of it.

3 Is anything predictable?

Could I introduce more twists and surprises? While plotting step by step, it’s easy to follow an obvious pattern. Now I need to make sure everything happens in the most interesting way, and look for opportunities to misdirect the reader or reinforce my themes. I also need to watch out for convenient coincidences.

4 Mood

I’m wondering if I need comic relief? The Mountains Novel is quite elegaic, and too much might get monotonous or precious. I’m looking for opportunities to add lighter moments so that I don’t wear the reader out.

5 Other rethinks

I’ve realised I’ve called two characters by the wrong names. One of them started out as comic relief, a variation on a stereotype who would give the reader something familiar to follow in a bizarre situation. But he is now so much of an individual that the name seems crude. This is annoying, because when I invented it I was rather delighted. But funnily enough, it would suit another secondary character, whose role must change because of the character who has developed. Can I adjust my mental image of the name? Or should I (reluctantly) consign it to outtake history?

6 Reviewing my wrong turnings

While I was conceptualising The Mountains Novel, I wrote reams of notes for possible story directions. With each new exploration, I didn’t dare read the old material in case I lost my way. But now I’m confident in its direction, I can look back over those early conjurings and see if there is material that might be useful. Many of them won’t fit, but some will add richness.

Thanks for the bicycle pic Vrogy

nyn soloYou can find other tips on outlining and troubleshooting in Nail Your Novel, which writing teacher and literary agent Lisa Cron recently recommended as part of her shortlist of essential writing books (hooray!).

newcovcompawesome sealAnd – hooray #2! My Memories of A Future Life (nailed novel) has been given a Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction by Awesome Indies. This was a big surprise as they first assessed it two years ago and I never thought they’d even remember it. Thanks, guys!

Do you troubleshoot your outline? If so, what kinds of things have you changed that made a big difference?

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