When Secondary Characters Demand More of the Limelight.

I have just finished the first draft of a children’s novel. I was initially very excited and not a little pleased with myself for having got even that far; It’s easily the longest piece of writing that I have worked on and the most complex. However, in the cold light of day, or rather, a week later, a multitude of issues have arisen; they’re waiting outside my room now, queuing rather politely, I thought. Each is holding a slip of paper with its main shortcoming written neatly in well-proportioned handwriting. Which is more than I can say for my longhand first draft, which is scrawled in HB pencil, the last few lines of each writing session easy to spot from the rest, being, as they are, desperately thrown onto the page and virtually unreadable. It would take a crack team from Bletchley to decipher most of it.

From my desk I can just about make out a few of these issues: ‘Plot Inconsistencies’, ‘Characters’ Names Changing’; ‘Superfluous Dialogue Tags’, and ‘Things My Character Wouldn’t Say’. Certainly a fair few things to be going on with as I embark on the second draft then.

There is one issue that worries me more than the rest though, and it’s been creeping up on me over the last few days. It thinks I can’t hear it; it thinks I’m oblivious to its presence, the way it stops making a noise whenever I do, or tries to hide behind that pile of books on the arm of the sofa whenever I turn round to catch it at its mischievous game.

You see, I’ve been fleshing out my characters, adding in the bits that were missing from the first draft, so that they might be more fully formed as I begin the second. I don’t mean limbs or noses; although, come to think of it, an extra nose on one of my characters would certainly be an interesting development for the rest to cope with. Hmm…maybe not.  I’m talking about their mannerisms, favourite clothes and phobias, (not everyone likes custard, you know; it scares some people silly). The things that really make them tick; or tock. I might even throw in the psychological consequences of the sudden dredging up of a repressed memory, (did I mention this was a comedic novel?)

And there’s the rub: at least one of my secondary characters is showing signs of becoming rather more interesting than the hero of the piece. If it continues like this, if they insist on maintaining their newly discovered  figure of speech or that ridiculous foible which makes everyone else (author included) laugh out loud, then what does the future hold for my main character? I’ve been working on her for ages; the story revolves around her; she is the story.

I know what you’ll say: you’ll tell me to just go away and write another novel; one about that other character: the boy who won’t stop being a little bit more interesting. Or else you’ll suggest I hold back; to not allow him to take all the limelight.

And that’s perfectly good advice.

But then, consider for a moment these characters from books most of us have either read, or at least heard about. They are all characters who are supposed to be secondary; there to provide interest, comedy or darkness to the plot, but who are in fact the real stars; they’re the ones who jump out at you from the page and scream, “No! Not him! Look at me!” And we do.

Who does everyone remember most vividly from Great Expectations? I’d say it was Miss Havisham. Pip is certainly the hero, but Miss H is more fun.

Miss Havisham shows Pip how to steal the show.

Or there’s Oliver Twist: he’s a lovable wee thing who we all root for and want to see wrapped up warm and safe in Victorian luxury; but it’s Fagin we all want to be; or Dodger.

Fagin and Dodger decide Oliver will never be as memorable as them.

And stepping away from Dickens, Frodo Baggins has a lot of fun and games throughout the trilogy, but isn’t it Gollum’s character who really shines? Almost as much as the ring?

Gollum ‘s star quality slimes(shines) through.

Is it possible to have a secondary character who is more interesting and memorable than your hero and still write a successful story? Dickens and Tolkein certainly managed it. But is it something that I should allow to happen? I’m no Dickens, so perhaps I should downgrade ‘Really Quite Interesting Secondary Character Number Two’ back to ‘Important, But Not So Visibly Intriguing Secondary Character Number Two’?

Or then again….going back to those examples, none of the secondary characters I’ve mentioned feature anything like as much as do the heroes. They are, after all, Pip’s ‘great expectations’; Oliver is so central to the story, his name’s even on the cover; and it’s Frodo’s mission to get rid of that dangerously alluring ring. So maybe that’s my answer: leave my secondary character as he is; perhaps even embellish him a bit more; but keep his stage (page) time down and stop him hogging the lights.

It gives me something to think about anyway, whilst I shuffle those ‘issues’ which are now neatly stacked alongside the first draft.

4 comments on “When Secondary Characters Demand More of the Limelight.

  1. Great post! I always struggle with the “listen to your characters” sentiment – it always seemed to me like taking a backseat on the creative ride. But more and more I understand that it’s about letting go of the reins, and letting your subconscious tell the story it’s trying to. Looking forward to more and very happy to have discovered your blog in the “Writing” section!

    • Thank you, and thanks for finding your way here. Letting the characters do their thing and see what happens….I like the sound of it. But it is a leap of faith. I should take it. I think.

  2. Interesting post Justin. I think secondary characters can be very interesting and rather than outshine the hero/heroine they become a good contrast. I have a main character in my Novella Jumping At Shadows that was published earlier this year, and she has a side kick, neither steal the show away from the other, but together they make it work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s