A few years ago I had the distinct pleasure of finding one of my favorite authors on Facebook and friending him. Not following him, not joining his page, but friending the actual man himself. As I was working on my first novel at the time, after I thanked him for his contributions to the written word, and explained how his work had impacted me (I imagine that I must have gushed at the time… most of the people who know me will tell you that I don’t gush…), I asked if he had any advice for new writers. I’ve know plenty of people who would give some pat, simple sounding answer like ‘don’t give up’ or ‘just do your best’ etc. However, this man didn’t. Instead, he gave me a simple piece of advice that has saved my stories time and again. Today, I hope to pass that on to you.
Succinctly stated, what this man told me was that, when he got stuck at some point in his writing, he generally found that the solution to the dilemma lay in his minor characters. Sometimes the block could be removed by simply doing something different with one of the main characters, but often the problem was that a minor character needed to be more fully developed. In developing his minor characters he gave himself pieces to work with that removed the block, and created a deeper, more complete story. I might add that this particular man’s character development is some of the best I’ve ever seen, up there with Marron Shed in Glen Cook’s Shadow’s Linger or Karsa Orlong in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. So, keeping this in mind, how do you actually do that?
Developing minor characters isn’t actually that hard, and there are a few ways to do it, depending on the kind of story your writing. For instance, at the moment I am working on a story that is written from multiple perspectives. For three days now I’ve been stuck on a single scene: writing, deleting, rewriting, deleting, etc because I couldn’t find a perspective that worked. I couldn’t find the right character to tell the story of that scene. Then I did. The key to writing the scene was to keep trying it from the perspective of different characters until I found one that worked.
Of course, if the story your writing only has one perspective (say a first person story), this is much more difficult. However, you can still do something similar. When writing a single perspective story you obviously can’t write from the perspective of a minor character. You can’t delve into the character’s thoughts, but you can delve into their motivations through their words and deeds. If you’re having trouble with a scene, try focusing on a different element of that scene, and then building it outwards from there. For instance, if your writing a scene in which two detectives find are examining a crime scene, and you can’t seem to get their dialogue quite right, try beginning with a third party in the conversation. Perhaps the detectives stop to chat with one of the uniformed officers, or with the doorman. Bringing in a minor character adds a new element to the scene that can make it work and can push through a stubborn section of the story that just doesn’t want to work.
If you don’t believe me, try it. The next time you find a scene that you’re struggling with, instead of getting frustrated, shift the focus to a previously minor character, and let the scene develop from there. It might take a few tries to find the right minor character, but once you do you’ll be surprised how quickly and easily the scene develops.