Wednesday, November 23, 2005

PH: Playing in the Mud—How Those Pesky Peripheral Characters Arise to Shape the Central Character’s Universe

When I was a new writer, I enjoyed inserting the peripheral characters into my story because I thought that it was a matter of making up a list of names from The Writer’s Digest Character-Naming Sourcebook, picking out a hair color, and pasting on a list of characteristics--from how they pronounce “darling” (dahling, dalink, darlin’), to how they dress. Kind of like adding the Midges and Kens to Barbie’s world. Easy. But not necessarily effective.

Developing essential side characters is as important to the plot as the expanding development of the central character’s story. That is true because properly developed characters provide a good deal of the universe that surrounds the central character, often becoming the cause and effect, the tipping point that sends the central character’s world wobbling off course. I say often because the protagonist can also be his/her own worst enemy, serving the plot through well-meaning yet disastrous choices.

As I give my central character breath through both internal and external devices, I’m also building in outside forces that will intrinsically wreck and sometimes offer temporary reprieve for that character’s life. The reprieve is the place in the story where you’re giving the reader a chance to catch her breath. She could be a mentor who gives the CC the piece of information or advice she needs to move a little closer to her driving desire or the character who comes delivering good news that two pages later disintegrates. But many of the side characters will serve to create tension, the page-turning devices that rivet the reader to her seat.

I like to be able to see this on the page before I begin writing. This method can be developed through whatever means works best for you. I’ve long used Randy Ingermanson’s outline table once I’ve developed those one or two line scene summaries. But even before that, I play in the mud of imagination for a while developing a universe of what-ifs.

First off, here’s our main or central character, the name written in the middle of a page in my notebook that by the novel’s end has become four or five notebooks, all full of many ideas that I either accepted or rejected as important to the plot. The first chapter will find the CC in one particular state of being, the last chapter will find him/her in another state, having been changed forever by circumstances. It may ease your mind to know that I usually have a pretty good idea of the outcome that will be played out in the final chapter, but not always. If you’ve nailed down at least a general idea, though, it will help speed up your plotting of scenes. Deciding who and what provided those causal changes are the kinds of choices that will either rivet a reader to her seat or cause her mind to drift away from the story. Even unexpected circumstances involve people who usher change into the story, so building those characters around the CC involves quite a lot of mud, if you will, some of it useful, some not. These change agents may block the CC’s way, inflict pain either intentionally or unintentionally, disagree with the CC making her question what she thought she knew, spread lies or gossip, tempt, make empty promises that send the CC off course, hover annoyingly or threateningly over the CC’s life, humiliate, badger—the list of conflicts that usher in change is as limited as the imagination.

When I’m finished making mud pies on those pages, I take a look at all of the side characters and assess the importance of each character’s life to the CC. Is one character similar to another? If so, I try combining those two, assimilating them into one character, because, after all, they are created to serve the protagonist’s story, not each other. By the novel’s end these characters are much more fully fleshed out than was evident in those early trial notes because each rewrite takes the book deeper into the protagonist’s psyche. The universal truths that I thought I might use have also either shifted or deepened.

I’ve had to learn to let go of characters that were providing little meaning to the CC’s story. I think of the central character as the fully formed planet—no longer imaginary mud--that on page one has gone off course either through circumstances beyond his/her control or through choice. If one planet’s axis tilts it can affect moons and other planets. If other planets get off course, it will affect the CC’s planet. They all start to wobble and quiver off course because they all share the same universe. I imagine them quivering and wobbling with fear or anger or manic delight that change has finally come into the universe. I’ve handed the central character a cosmic force that either repels or draws the other planets into her orbit. If those side planets, those peripheral characters, do not impede, or with great profundity, help her along her orbital path, then I carefully aim my delete key at them and blow them out of the sky.

I can do that because it all started, after all, in my mud hole.

Stay faithful and true, as Christ your Lord has done for you.
Author of Whisper Town and Nazareth’s Song.


At 8:41 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Wow!...that does it...I'm makin' a mud hole!

Love Randy Ingermanson and his Snowflake! (His fiction books too!)


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