Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Getting into (TOO MUCH) Character
Cheryl Wyatt here. I was delighted last week when Joan Marlow Golan, Executive Editor for Steeple Hill Books, recommended Brandilyn Collins' Getting into Character as one of four resources for writers.
I met Brandilyn at an American Christian Fiction Writers www.acfw.com conference. Not only was she a savvy MC, she took time out of her demanding schedule to encourage me and a group of friends. Many agents and editors recommended Getting into Character during panels so I bought it. Brandilyn shows how applying acting technique and theory improves characterization. I learned a ton from the book and still use the techniques today. This book goes very well with Deb Dixon's GMC.
You might notice the title of this blog post says Getting into (TOO MUCH) Character. I want to talk about some pitfalls of characterization today, with special emphasis on ancillary characters and secondary characters. Ancillary characters is a term I came up with from working in the hospital. You have the main nursing floor but then there are what are called "ancillary" departments. Though they are non-medical or main, they are still valuable, crucial even, to the inner workings of a hospital and patient care. They serve some kind of purpose. You can liken that to ancillary characters in a book plot. Main characters are obviously your hero and heroine or protagonist and antagonist. Some people refer to them as "leads."
Every ancillary (and secondary) character should serve at least one valid purpose. That purpose needs to be of paramount importance to the plot or setting. If not...nix 'em.
Secondary characters are those of the next level down from your "leads" of significance and importance in the story. Normally someone close by way of friendship, proximity or relation to the main character/s.
Ancillary characters are everyone else in the book. While not crucial, they are important, yet more in the background of the book. They're like props. My B & B had to have an owner and my restaurant a waitress. People like that. I combined the two and stuck the restaurant in the B & B and viola! The B & B owner doubled as a waitress. That cut one entire character. Better than cutting half a character I guess. EW! LOL. Condense, combine and cut them wherever you can.
Also, ancillaries don't always have to have names. In fact, if them having a proper name is not vital to the plot, refer to them by title. For example, "The garage owner" or "the police officer" etc. Do this whether they make one appearance in the book or several. That helps your reader keep track of the more important, named characters. For category-length books, I try to keep my cast around 7 named characters if I can help it. This includes animals/pets. It's harder to do that with a running series where readers want to catch glimpses of leads from previous books, but if I have to use more than 7 characters total, I severely limit the time those ancillary characters are "on-stage" in the book.
The main thing is you don't want your reader to sweat bullets of agony trying to keep up with who is who and to who. Make sense?
Another pitfall is not introducing the hero and heroine right off the bat. I judged a contest entry recently and by the end of the 25Th page, I still had NO idea who the hero was. Several men had interacted with the heroine by that time. This was a short contemporary romance, so I encouraged the author that I felt we need to know sooner who the hero is because, according to the synopsis, there was no good plot reason for the slow reveal. Readers need to meet the hero and heroine in the first chapter if you're targeting category romance...the first page or few if you can manage that without jarring the reader with a too-short scene break or POV (point of view) switch. In other words, make clear who the "mains" are as close to the beginning of the book as possible.
Antagonist. Ancillaries. Hero. Mains. Leads. Protag. Heroine. Secondaries. Antag. Secondary. Villain. Lead. Protagonist. Primary. Am I confusing you yet with the many different terms I'm using?
I'll bet you wish I'd just quit it and stick to the only two things I'm talking about: Main character/s. Secondary character/s, huh?
In much the same way, this frustration is what readers can feel when you call the same character by more than one name or continually switch the way you say their name. Pick one name per character and be consistant throughout. Only veer from this when you HAVE to for a vital plot purpose. Vital organ (character) means the body (plot) absolutely CANNOT survive without it. If your story can thrive without a character, question whether you truly need them. Save them for another book. Conserve. LOL!
Secondary and ancillary characters are great tools to reveal your main characters' good traits and even their weaknesses and vulnerabilities in a natural way. It can come out during dialogue or interaction between characters.
Don't let other characters steal the spotlight off the leads, even if you're setting the reader up for a sequel using that secondary character. The hero and heroine need to remain in the forefront, especially in romance.
And, don't be offended if you've done this...but my biggest pet peeve with characters is when an author gives an animal or pet in the book a human name. That confuses the daylights out of me. It's a flaw on my part, rather than the author though because I have a TERRIBLE time remembering names. Whether it be in books, or in life. SO, for the love of dogs (LOL) please give your next story pup a canine-y name rather than calling her Charlie. Oh, yeah...that's my other difficulty. When females are given male names. I have stories I've done this in (not submitted yet) and it drives my critters bonkers. So don't do that if you can help it.
*Try not to introduce too many characters at once. Give the reader a chance to ease into it and get to know them.
***The biggest thing I want you to come away with today is to make sure that you don't have too many characters in your book. That is probably one of the most frustrating things to readers trying to engage in your story.
*Another secondary/ancillary character pitfall is when you have more than one name for the same character. I have a character whose name is Vince Reardon (A Soldier's Devotion). But all through the Wings of Refuge previous books, he is referred to as "Reardon" because that's what he prefers. In his own story however, the heroine made it a point to call him Vince. It was tricky because the heroine called him "Vince" yet the secondary (Vince's Pararescue teammates) characters referred to him as "Reardon." The ancillary (the teenagers) characters referred to him as "Yo, Dude" most of the time. I consolidated to make clear for the reader by the heroine's subtext (thoughts following dialogue) that he was "Reardon" at least in the first chapter so readers new to the series would understand he's the same person. I nixed all the "Yo, dudes" until the last half or third of the book, by which time readers hopefully had a chance to familiarize themselves with each character.
Be mindful of this if you have various characters call another character by more than one name, nickname, attribution, pronoun or endearment. If you're not sure you've done this, have someone give it a cold read. Fresh eyes will be able to see if you're keeping clear who is who and not overwhelming the reader with too many, too much, too soon, too confusing in the way of character cast and names.
The only time it's okay to make your reader have to work to figure out who is who is the real villain in suspense or mysteries with red herrings and keeping them wondering Who actually Done It. LOL!
I recommend that you cut and combine characters where you can. If they are not 100% crucial to the plot, nix them. Just like you cut extraneous words...be brutal with cutting unnecessary characters too.
*Another ancillary/secondary character pitfall is giving them more precedence than the main character/s. In A Soldier's Promise, my debut novel, on editorial revisions, I had to tone down the heroine's best friend Celia because she was such a strong character, she overshadowed the heroine. Of course Celia eventually demanded her own book because of it...hence A Soldier's Family. LOL! But you get my drift.
These are a few of what I percieve to be the main pitfalls of secondary and ancillary characters. List more in the comment section if you think of any I've missed.
I'm giving away a copy of Brandilyn's Getting into Character to one lucky commenter. Be sure to leave an e-mail address by Thursday, May 20Th at Midnight.
If you don't happen to win Brandilyn's book, here's a Amazon purchase link. http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Into-Character-Secrets-Novelist/dp/0471058947
Brandilyn's Web site is http://www.brandilyncollins.com/
I'd love to know what your biggest character pet peeve is, either as a reader, writer or both. I'd also love to know what your biggest character pitfall is if you're a writer.
*Curtain opens and stage mic is on for comments* DO share!
Thanks so much for stopping by today.