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.