Everyone’s a Star

7 Jan

I spent the first morning of this year at Melissa‘s new house, in what will eventually become her library (and, I assume, writing room).

We talked for hours.  Naturally, the subject of our novels-in-progress came up.  I blathered on about how difficult revision can be, how it sometimes feels like a huge puzzle.  Being the awesome critique partner she is, though, she’s great at feeling out whether I need her to challenge me, or whether I need simple encouragement.

Well, that morning was all about encouragement.  She mentioned one of the things she loved about my WIP was that I was able to weave a lot of threads together and not drop them (specifically, she remembered this post I wrote about spider legs).  I so enjoy complicated, well-woven books/TV shows/movies—it’s only natural that I would attempt to write one.


This got me thinking about how long it took to actually spin the threads, not to mention how long it’s taken to weave them together without dropping them.  (Answer: I’m on my fourth draft.  One of those drafts was a total rewrite, another was a partial rewrite.  A long time.)

I thought I’d share my secret today.  Alas, there is no secret to the weaving of the threads—just diligence, patience, perseverance, and faith that it will all pay off.  No, the secret I want to share is about how to spin the threads in the first place.

The number one thing that has given my novel depth and decent subplots is this:

Treat every character like the star of the show, even if they’re only on stage for two seconds.

Here’s what I mean by that.

My first draft fell flat because I only knew my main character.  He was vibrant against a background of half-drawn people whose motivations were no more than what I needed them to be in the moments they were on stage.

The second draft became a total rewrite because I got to know my minor characters.  Period.

I remember sitting in my favorite Starbucks, looking at all the people I knew well, and all the people who were strangers.  It occurred to me: I feel like the center of my world, because I come complete with 27 years of memories, opinions, experiences, and relationships.  But: that stranger over there?  To him, I’m a minor character, and HE’S the star of his own world.  Just because I’m on the stage of his life for two seconds, it doesn’t mean I’m any less real of a person.  And just because I’ve never seen him before, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have several decades of opinions, experiences, etc.

THAT, my friends, revolutionized my writing.

I started thinking of my minor characters in that way: who are they, behind the scenes?  What do they want, what do they feel, what emotions are they experiencing?  How do they live and breathe and speak, even when we don’t see them?

After thinking about these things, my story changed.  Not the main plot—but all the subplots.  There were lots of things going on behind the central story, believable things that enhanced the main plot.

When Lexie, one of my favorite characters, walks on stage, she is 100% Lexie—not some cardboard cliché who merely does what I need her to do.  Every piece of dialogue, every movement she makes, every decision, ALL of these are completely in line with who I know she is.  She’s one of the more major minor characters (got that? ha!).  I’ve done my best to get to know most of my characters in this way.

This might sound like a lot of work.  I hope it does, because, um, it IS.  But, it comes in handy when you’re trying to weave the threads later.  When you know your characters and their lives so well, you don’t have to guess about whether or not they would act a certain way—things just start to fall into place. You start to remember the threads you spun like you remember things going on in your friends’ lives (at least, I do), which makes it much easier to weave them together without forgetting you started them in the first place.

So, moral of the story: minor characters are just as real as your major characters.  They’re flesh and bone and experience, not cardboard.  Everyone feels like a star in their own lives—write them that way, whether it’s their story or not.


8 Responses to “Everyone’s a Star”

  1. Megs Friday / 7 January 11 at 10:12 am #

    I’ve never thought about it in those words, but that’s something I’ve always done. I don’t write stories where I don’t know the characters—ALL of them. And those threads just seem to pop up and fall together and twist and reinforce and sometimes create each other because of it.

    I don’t know why but I just never could write a character I didn’t know unless they really only had one line in the whole book (I mean appearing, not speaking). I used to think that was weird. 🙂

    There’s this huge bank of characters in my head that I know who they are, what makes them who they are no matter what the circumstances of their world and life, and most of all, how they interact when you throw together different groups of them. Whenever I start a new story, I draw on these for my secondary characters, rename them, build them a revised history, then watch them take off. It seems to work for me.

    But explaining that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it explained as well as you just did.

  2. Beth @ To the Fullest Friday / 7 January 11 at 10:27 am #

    Great thoughts and advice. For myself, sometimes my side characters steal my heart — and then the show from the main character. So I have to work on keeping the primary focus on my MC while staying true to all the “little” people. 😀

  3. Liza Kane Friday / 7 January 11 at 10:44 am #

    I LOVED this:

    “It occurred to me: I feel like the center of my world, because I come complete with 27 years of memories, opinions, experiences, and relationships. But: that stranger over there? To him, I’m a minor character, and HE’S the star of his own world. Just because I’m on the stage of his life for two seconds, it doesn’t mean I’m any less real of a person. And just because I’ve never seen him before, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have several decades of opinions, experiences, etc.”

    That is exactly how I feel! I often people-watch at the job, and when I finally do interact with them, it’s amazing how many stories are captured in one individual. They’re in my life for an average of 5 minutes, but I always feel like I got the better end of the interchange because I’m always left with at least one story.

    People have lives and go about their business without once intersecting with mine; so should it be with our characters. They ought to feel fully formed, 100% real. Their motives and their decisions will be real and natural because you know how they would act in the real world. Like you said, it’s like remembering the things that are going on in your friends’ lives (and when they’re your friends, you’re not really surprised by the decisions they made).

    Thank you for sharing!

    I love Lexie! ^_^

  4. Heather Simone Friday / 7 January 11 at 12:33 pm #

    I never really thought about characters in this way. But, I do spend A LOT of time getting to know each character I create. I keep a binder containing character sheets for each and every character.

    You’re completely right – Everyone’s a star!

  5. Linda Cassidy Lewis Friday / 7 January 11 at 3:39 pm #

    Excellent post, Kayla. And you know I agree with this 100%. Your method shows well in your writing.

    This will sound crazy to anyone not a writer, but I still wonder what’s going on with some of my minor characters in Brevity. And one of them made me so curious she inspired my next novel. 😉

  6. anna caro Friday / 7 January 11 at 3:44 pm #

    Yes! I’ve been working on developing minor characters lately, and this is some great advice.

  7. Christa Polkinhorn Saturday / 8 January 11 at 6:37 am #

    Hi Linda,
    When I sent one of my initial drafts of my debut novel to my editor, his main criticism was that my characters lacked emotional depth. He (bless his heart) was absolutely right and he saved my work. I rewrote it and my characters came to life. You are right, all the characters that contribute to the story need to be convincing and have a life of their own.

    Sometimes, though, there are true minor characters that need to be mentioned but don’t need to be fleshed out: a waiter in a restaurant who hands you the menu may be necessary to the scene, but you don’t really need to know a lot about him/her. If we spend too much time describing really minor characters, it can get confusing for the reader and it doesn’t add to the main story. I don’t think that’s what you meant though.


    • Linda Cassidy Lewis Sunday / 9 January 11 at 4:02 pm #

      If this entire comment was directed toward me, no, of course I didn’t mean to advise describing every incidental character.

      Actually, I don’t spend a lot of time describing most of my main characters. I prefer to let my readers envision them from the few details I offer. In my soon-to-be-released novel (I love saying that!) Jalal is a different story, but only because one of the other characters dwells on his appearance.

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