Thursday, January 10, 2008

Great characters aren't always the main ones...

Later than usual and soooo sorry about that. We had a rough storm yesterday morning around 5:00 A.M. that left us with hurrican force wind gusts and no power....

So here I am, late and apologetic.

Okay, the last time I posted I gave you permission to take some time off, enjoy the holidays, bless your family with your full presence, yaddi, yaddi, yah.

Which gave me time to get a jump start on January and out-pace all of you to various winners’ circles.

Nya, ha ha!

Kidding, of course. With six kids, several spouses (not mine, theirs, I’m having enough trouble with the one I’ve hung onto for thirty-plus years) one fiancĂ© (who isn’t used to us yet, poor boy) two grandchildren (amazing when I look so young) two more on the way (more amazing yet, right????), a host of Golden Retrievers and one lop-eared, 3-month-old, sixty pound (you read it right, don’t bother to check) Great Dane puppy, I had my work cut out for me so I spent just as much time away from contests, WIP’s, e-mails, etc. as the rest of you did.

But it’s January now, time to get your butts out of bed, put your running shoes (or slippers) on, and sit yourself down in that chair and write.

No excuses.

Housecleaning can wait. The house ain’t goin’ nowhere, now is it? When was the last time you saw a house get up and walk away?


And no one needs that much sleep, even in the dark days of January. Please. Invest in higher watt bulbs, ignore the shortened days (they come every year, get over it already) and flick a switch, flooding your work area with light.

Grab a diet soda or something not flooded with calories to make up for the cheesecake, cannolis and roast turkey and stuffing you delighted in two weeks ago, put your hands to the keyboard and GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That’s it. You’ve got it. Watch those fingers dance across the keys, creating words in a fashion that matches no other.

You go, girl! You go, boy!

Okay, enough of that. I’m making myself gag. Not pretty.

We talked about dialogue two posts ago. Sharpening it, making it match the moment. Today I want to talk about characters.

I love characters. Every town has characters. Big cities, small towns, it doesn’t matter, characters run rampant everywhere you go. They prevail in the grocery store, the classroom, the elevator. How about the old woman who always sniffs her vegetables, then puts them in her cart or back on the shelf of the produce aisle? The guy who wears his faded Yankees ball cap, circa 1942, everywhere he goes. The young mother with bad acne and a coat that’s way too big, who’s carting a little kid around the metro system and you have to wonder if she’s homeless or sick with the flu because she’s red-eyed and sneezing…

For a lot of writers it’s easy to develop your main characters. You know them and love them. Their tweaks and twitches, facts and foibles are the basis for your story so you’ve layered them and shown the reader that there’s a reason for why they do the things they do.

But a good book (in my humble opinion) has the same depth of feeling for the supporting cast, the Joan Cusacks and Rita Wilsons of this world. The ‘Melanies’ (Gone With the Wind), the ‘Beths’ (Little Women), fun if stereotypical Jewish fathers (Judd Hirsch, Independence Day), annoying sisters and super-annoying mother (Pride and Prejudice, A&E version).

The strength of your supporting cast is important even in a romance novel that concentrates its merits on the romantic relationship. The undercurrents that flow from well-developed characters and story lines are what separate the men from the boys.

Er, um….

Okay, the women from the girls, most times, because most romance writers are women. And just studding your work with notable characters isn’t the answer. There needs to be a reason they appear here and there, something that eventually holds meaning or reflection to your protagonists.

If Elizabeth’s younger sister in Pride and Prejudice wasn’t portrayed in book and film as being a totally boy-happy ditz, then her leave-taking with Whickham wouldn’t have been as destructive because it would have seemed gratuitous, a plot twist thrown in at the last minute to add angst to the lives of dear Eliza and wickedly good-looking Mr. Darcy. And if Mary hadn’t been the dull, insipid, book-worm sister, her boy-crazed siblings wouldn’t have shown quite so annoyingly bright to either the reader or the viewer.

Vivid characterization can be subtle or in-your-face, depending on the book and circumstances, but how often do you read a book that just slightly misses the mark of being really good because the writer/author didn’t go to the depth you wanted, expected and deserved?

You can avoid that mistake by making sure that every word you use to set up your characters works on their behalf. Keep the script strong and tough or sweet and gentle, but don’t overwork your product or toss it in casually. Good characters are prevalent. Most published novels have ‘em. Great characters are the ones we remember through time, even before the advent of Hollywood.

Speaking of Hollywood, picture Doc Hollywood. Fun movie, typical romance theme, boy gets caught in wrong place, wrong time, meets girl who can’t possibly fit into his world and doesn’t want to, boy must leave, then realizes life’s all wrong without her and comes back.

With a pig.

Not for nothin’, but adding the entire town as supporting characters, and the PIG, was a stroke of brilliance that brought a typical date movie up to the standards of fun, memorable romantic comedy.

Not to mention Ellen and the Pakistani man.

Push yourself that little bit harder to step back and envision the town/city/suburb of your setting and add in splashes of color through the strength of characterization of your support staff. I promise you won’t regret it.



  1. Ruthy, it's great to have you bacl and your wonderful advice! Thanks for giving us all a push to produce. I knew being pushy wasn't a character flaw. :-)

    I love to write supporting characters. We can take more risks with them, make them over the top in ways we'd never dare with our h/h. But there's more to it than that. I applaud your excellent advice to make sure there's a reason secondary characters appear, something that eventually holds meaning or reflection to your protagonists.

    In the story I'm revising, I love this hypochrondriac. She adds humor to the story, and I want to pop her in just because she's fun, but as you said, she's got to further the plot, or impact the story or main characters in some way. Cause books aren't real life. They're better. And we don't dare waste a word.

  2. Ruthy, You're so right on about the characters. You've just described a "character-driven" book versus a plot driven. We hear that terminology in workshops and at conferences all the time. You've hit on what that means.

    And Janet, I agree. The character has to be there for a reason even though you love that character to death--it could be to death all right--the death of your submission.

    I know Ruthy knows what she's talking about because she has wonderful and colorful characters in her works.

    Happy writing in the new year.

  3. I've just finished writing a three book cozy mystery series for Heartsong Presents Mysteries ... that line is launching now btw. And one of the best things about cozy mysteries is you're supposed to have quirky characters.
    It was just so fun to create all these flaky people...far to close to real life, honestly.
    I just pushed the limit of quirkiness as far as I could and it made me laugh.
    And to make them quirky, especially secondary characters, without letting them take over the book.
    A great, great example of fun secondary characters is from the movie While You Were Sleeping.
    If you're familiar with it, think of the father, blunt, rude -- he was played by Everybody Loves Raymond dad, Peter Boyle.
    Think of the neighbor, Jack Warden, Joey, the dorky son of Lucy's (Sandra Bullock's) landlord. Her boss giving her terrible advice. Just every single character, even tiny ones are rich and fun.
    It's to me, the difference between a good movie -- or book -- and a great movie or book.

    I'd give you a harder time about being late, Ruthy, if I didn't come limping in around noon with my post on Monday.
    Tell me, did Tina do the cattle prod thing with you too?
    Poor girl, burdened with all those organizational skills and a good memory.

  4. Okay, Ruthy, so I sniff the veggies and fruit and sometimes put it back. Am I a crazy old woman??

    Seriously. How could you buy a canteloupe without smelling it?! Or a peach?



  5. How interesting,that we are speaking of the produce department.

    I just set my only goal for 2008.


    And those secondary characters. They just love to take over don't they?

    What do you do when they are more colorful than your protagonists?

    Mary may not answer this as her answer will be to kill them off

  6. Oh, Ruthy, you hit my hot button!! Subordinate characters are one of my FAVORITE parts of a novel, so rock on, you sweet tyrant, you!

    But be warned, fellow writers, that some contest judges will take exception to spending too much time or talent on the 2nd-string. I once got a 50% score from a judge who felt I spent way too much time on subordinate characters. Grrrr ... But then her vote was canceled out by another judge in the SAME contest who gave me a perfect score for the subcharacters who became like a second family to her. Go figure.

    Either way, you can't go wrong conjuring up some pretty colorful, albeit quirky, characters. Mmmm ... sounds like a few Seekers I know ... :)

  7. I've never read a book that can't be improved with a little gunfire, Tina.

  8. Someday I'm going to be a Southern fiction writer (if I ever finish the darn Goliath I'm working on) and Southern fiction is not Southern fiction without quirky over-the-top characters. So much fun to create. Thanks for reminding us.

  9. Melanie, you're so right, and that's one of the things I love about Southern fiction.

    I remember reading in some wonderful Southern novel a line that went something like this:

    "We don't tuck our crazies away in some nursin' home. We set 'em right out on the front porch for everyone to see."

    I don't remember if that was Karen White or some other wonderful Southern author (Deborah Smith, maybe????), but it's a great line and self-explanatory.

    And last year I was about the only person to award a decent contest score to a published author whose book could have used editorial help but whose characters sang that Southern tune of rarity and grace so prone to our Southern Baptist friends.

    But we Northerners have our quirky neighbors too. We've got one local bit of flavor who hobbles around the village selling newspapers. Another one who dresses like Dracula, black cape, hat, the whole nine yards, and he delights in 'flowing' down the street, his walk sweeping the path behind him....

    And my well-to-do neighbor who can't go anywhere without swiping something to show he can do it. A minor league klepto who might just get caught one of these days.

    And a local very rich landlady who drives twenty mph down the middle of country roads (speed limit 55), in a station wagon that's older than dirt, with her 80's hair and penciled eyebrows, and she comes to a complete stop in the middle of the road if she sees something alongside the road that's interesting. Could be garbage, or a produce stand, or a yard sale...

    Doesn't matter. She doesn't signal, or swerve to the side, oh, no.

    She just stops.


  10. Great character ideas, Ruthy! Just be sure to change the names so you don't gets sued. :)

    And I think you may be right about the funny line. I first thought Deb Smith, then thought of Haywood Smith. I do believe it's one of my Georgia buds. :)


  11. interesting advice. i especially like the example of mary in pride and prejudice. its so true.

    for the contest: hsmuda[at]gmail[dot]com


  12. Or could it be Joshilyn Jackson? I know I've read that line somewhere, and I just finished Between, Georgia by her. She has some great one-liners.

  13. Ruthy, our small town had a Hot Tamale man, who walked the streets, calling hot tamales. He lived above a store on the square. When he died, he left serious cash behind, surprising everyone. Not as impressive as your resident Dracula.

  14. While main characters are what moves the book forward, the secondary characters are what keep me coming back for more - a good supporting cast make or break a book for me - good article!

    ryanx6 at msn dot com

  15. Janna, I'm so with you. To me they're the difference between a nice dessert and really good pastry. One's good, the other is mouth-watering.

    And Janet, I love the hot tamale man! Awesome, Dude!

    And didn't Harper Lee totally hit the mark with Boo Radley?

    Not to mention Scout.


  16. I love it when a sub-character suddenly takes on a personality of his/her own and readers demand to know more about their story. I actually changed the hero in Captive Dreams becuase people demanded to know what happens to Sid from Sandhill Dreams. And I actually wanted to know myself :-)

  17. I am not a writer, but I love reading about all of your experiences! Cindi

  18. Im with cindy im not a writer but love reading the posts.
    oh and Im with you Mary!
    just finished Petticoat Ranch the gunfire went down well.

  19. I too am not a writer but I enjoy reading the posts.

  20. I am thankful for these helpful instructions. I am trying to put away information for when I actually do write something that will be read by others.
    cepjwms at yahoo dot com

  21. LOVED this timely article. I'm starting a new book right now and working on my supporting characters, so I especially appreciated the insights shared. Thanks!

    Oh, and I'd love to be in your contests!

  22. LOVED your post, Ruthie!!!

    And, everyone, we're really glad you're here and posting comments...whether you write or are just a reader.

    Thanks for supporting our blog with your readership!

    You make it worthwhile for us!

    Cheryl Wyatt