Friday, August 19, 2011

Secondary Characters

A few months ago, I was catching a flight to New York that left at six a.m. As we were readying to board, we were told the plane had been delayed an hour. You can imagine how that pleased me, after getting up to drive to the airport at 4 a.m.
I later found out the flight delay was caused by one of the passengers, who had suffered an epileptic seizure while boarding. A shame, and certainly, I felt badly. A simple hour of waiting suddenly seemed so flimsy an excuse for being upset.

When I finally sat down, a sleepy looking surfer dude (maybe that’s repetitive?) sat next to me. At this point I was also feeling sleepy and ready to get the six-hour flight underway but, as fate would have it, we struck up a conversation. 

Over delicious airplane coffee, I came to find out he was the young man who had suffered the seizure. He looked sleepy because he’d just taken anti-seizure medication and had a roaring headache. I learned that he surfs regardless of the danger inherent in being epileptic because he loves it too much to stop. At this point, I was feeling very much in awe, and very guilty of 1) being an impatient, small-minded fool and 2) making stupid assumptions about people. This young man was far more than a hang loose surfer kid. He had a passion. A need. A flaw. A strength. A weakness. I learned all of this over one of those tiny Styrofoam cups of coffee.

Point of that story is this: We are all more interesting beneath the surface. People make fascinating choices. They deal with incredible obstacles. They are impatient and small-minded, as I was that day (fine, more than just that day), and fearless and optimistic, like surfer dude. Everyone has a story. Everyone is interesting. All you have to do is ask. Somehow, I forget that in real life. I forget that about secondary characters, too.

If I’m not connecting with a secondary character, then I know it means I don’t know them well enough. Once I discover what makes them tick—then it’s like Jodi said in her post yesterday, your protagonist plays off them and vice versa. And the world of your novel gets bigger and more colorful.

Here’s a fabulous quote from agent and writing guru Donald Maass:
Every protagonist needs a torturous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an iron instinct, an irresistible plan, a noble ideal, an undying hope… whatever it is that in the end propels him beyond the boundaries that confine the rest of us and brings about fulfilling change.

Yessss. Right? But don’t limit a torturous need, or an exquisite lust to simply your protagonist. Sit down and fasten your seat belt. Get yourself some coffee and ask the secondary character sitting beside you a few questions. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.


  1. Loooove! Surfer dude just sounds fascinating, too. That definitely sounds like one of those Moments where you're knocked from your everydayness. Awesome.

  2. Great post! Totally what I need to hear today.

  3. Jodi, that is exactly what happened. I was totally knocked out of my everydayness. Perfectly said. Shari, so glad! I feel that way often when I read this blog.

  4. I love the little snippets in life like this--when your outlook changes just with a simple interaction with the world around you. Here's to surfer dudes everywhere!

  5. That was a fantastic post, V. I love my secondary characters, but this makes me think even harder about them and their histories. And I loved that Surfer Dude story!

  6. Julie - yes. I don't think I'll forget that simple interaction. Jenn - it was pretty cool. Definitely a moment of pause for me.