Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What's Their Story? Discovering the Front Story of Your Non-Point of View Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Dipping into the archives again today (last week of re-runs, back to normal next week). Here's another look on ways to deepen your secondary characters. Enjoy!

I've talked about how helpful it was to write the backstory for my characters. That exercise went so well, I decided to write the front story for them (totally my term here). Find out what they planned to do with all that history I had given them.

The front story is basically that character's role in the book and what they're doing when the protagonist isn't around. What they want, what they're worried about, how they feel about the events that are happening in the novel, etc. Picture Shaun from Shaun of the Dead. He might be the hero of his story, but it's clear there's a whole zombie apocalypse and major battle going on over on the next street he's not even aware of (where Buffy is no doubt saving the world). If we were reading that story, Shaun would be this plucky little colorful character who showed up from time to time and gave a bigger sense of the world and problem.

What makes the front story different from basic plotting is that you aren't trying to craft an exciting story or tell a new story with these characters. It's about figuring out how that one character fits in with the rest of your story and how they affect the plot.

As I went through this exercise, I found some characters had short paragraphs if they didn't do much, while others had pages of information. For secondary characters the process was easier, because they already had roles to play (and characters I had written the backstory for were easier still to write the front story). For minor characters it was even more enlightening, because I found ways to make their small roles really matter to the plot.

Looking at the book from different character's perspective gave me some new perspectives as well. I got to see:
  • What they wanted independently from my protagonist that could be potential conflicts.
  • What their scene goals were when they were interacting with my protagonist.
  • What they were doing when they weren't on screen.
For example, two smaller characters show up several times in one of my WIPs. They're more for color and world building than anything else, but after I looked at their front stories, I found ways to use them much more effectively.

Both characters are great mirrors for my protagonists. They allow me to show what the main character's lives would be like if they screwed up or didn't solve the problems I threw at them in the book. They're like symbolic layers to my main characters, and through them I can show aspects of my POVs they couldn't otherwise see on their own. Consequences that could be their fate if they took a different path.

Small problems that were minor issues my protagonists had to deal with were now cautionary tales, foreshadowing, or even a display of the risks they were taking. All things I wouldn't have seen had I not looked at these secondary character's stories closer. And all things that will make the book richer.

Try looking at your non-POV characters, no matter how large or small their role. Write out how their story would go if readers followed them during the course of your novel. Think about:
  • What are they doing while the protagonist is solving the novel's conflicts?
  • How would the major plot events affect them?
  • How would the protagonist's actions affect them?
  • What would they do to protect themselves?
  • What would they know? Not know?
  • Would they try to help? Hinder? Stay out of it?
  • What would their reaction be to the major reveals? The minor reveals?
  • Whose side would they be on?
Be aware, some characters won't have very interesting stories. For example, nobody would want to read about the cook in my novel's palace, but thinking about how she fits into the story's world made me realize a few things about her that I could use. She actually does have ways to hurt my protagonist, and would probably do it if she got the chance. Her interactions with this character will unfold differently now, and when my protagonist is around this character, tensions will rise and those scenes will be a whole lot more interesting.

While the story centers around your protagonist, try thinking about how it affects the other people in your book's world as well. You might find ways to deepen your story that you never knew existed.

How often do you think about how a secondary or minor character affects your story? Do you give them lives off screen? Think about what they do when they're not in a scene. Is there anything about those characters that can make your story richer?


Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl.

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18 comments:

  1. Great advice. And Shaun of the Dead is a perfect way to illustrate the different between front story and the plot, because you're right: Shaun's a minor/background character in some other hero's story.

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  2. I certainly think about this, but I've never considered writing it all out. Might not be a bad idea.

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  3. And beware -- they might show up and demand their own book. That happens to me, and I have to go back and flesh them out when it's their turn to be center stage.

    I'd given one character a child in passing in one book, so I had to deal with that when he wanted me to tell his story.

    Another, I'd never given a first name. I had to figure out why when I wrote his book.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  4. I like the term `front story'.

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  5. When I handed my MS off to beta readers, I was surprized at how many of them responded so strongly to a handful of secondary characters. They fell in love with them, were sad, thrilled, outraged, gleeful, or satisfied when certain things happened to them. It kind of blew me away. A 1-scene character could leave a very powerful impression.

    When I include a character, I challenge myself with "Do I love this character?" There's got to be something about them that really turns my crank - whether it's their vileness, their speech cadence, their world view, attitude, sense of humor, etc. If I don't love the character top to bottom - and note, it doesn't necessarily mean that I "like" who they are" - I'll revisit them and possibly give them the axe.

    And yes, some of my secondary - or even tertiary - characters have planted the "write my story, too!" seed! But I think that's a really, really good sign!

    P

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  6. :) I remember a post you wrote about writing mock queries to get a sense of the story. I have kind of combined that strategy with this one in the past to write query letters from the secondary characters' POV's. In a book with 3 important POV characters, it helped me figure out who's really the "main" character.

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  7. I loved the HBO show The Wire and I think the writers must have done something similar to this. Because they would have these wonderful minor characters that would come into a scene for a short time but have such an impact. And afterwards it would leave you imagining what those characters day to day lives must be like. It added this cool depth to the show and made the world more realistic and interesting.

    Also, Janice, after you did this exercise did you change anything the POV character said or thought when around these characters?

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  8. Paul S, that was one of my favorite things about that movie. I could totally see the big budget summer action movie going on two streets over :)

    Matthew, I certainly found it helpful, even if all it does is make you think about what role each character plays. They become more fleshed out because you know what's they're doing and feeling while all these other things are going on.

    Terry, lol, yeah, that is a downside. But look at all the book idea it might generate :)

    Chicory, thanks!

    Paul, that's a great tip. If all they are are placeholders, they're just not doing much for your story.

    Laura, I love that! And what a great example of taking a tip and making it your own.

    Sam, that's the sign of great character writing. I felt the same way about the Howling Commandos from Captain America.

    It did indeed. Minor characters acted differently, which made my POV characters react to them. They weren't just walking through a scene not paying attention to who was there because they weren't important. It really helped make the world seem more real.

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  9. This is great advice. I have been doing that, lately, with a detailed outline. I think that is why we like the classics like Star Wars, Harry Potter, LOTR - the characters are ALL well developed.

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  10. Great advice. It's so important to make your secondary characters memorable too. Makes your book so much richer.

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  11. I may have to try that letter trick.

    Thinking about this post reminded me of a scene in Patricia Wrede's `The Raven Ring' where a pair of city watchmen unknowingly trip up the heroes by making them report a crime, which keeps the heroes from leaving the city when they planned. I just love those watchmen. They spend their whole scene snarking at each other and griping about paperwork. They took what could have been a throw-away scene and made it fun.

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  13. What a brilliant idea. My gut says this would lead to spin off books too, because some of the front stories for me would be so tempting to write. :)

    Angela

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  14. Tasha, so true. Stories really are all about the characters, and when skimp on those it shows.

    Natalie, indeed. And I often find the coolest plot twists that way.

    Chicory, a perfect example of what I mean. Great obstacles with a twist.

    Angela, that is the downside, but worth it :) And who knows? You might discover an awesome story.

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  15. I love this idea too. I recently found Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method and I've been working through it so I can finish a novel that I started in a pantser sort of way. One of the steps was to write out the plot of the story from each individual characters point of view, which essentially turned out to be their front story. I loved it! I learned so much about my characters and the plot was instantly richer. Now the conflicts can flow naturally and I care much more about a couple of my small characters than I used to. It also helped me to figure out the voices of two of them that had been very bland before. I'm bookmarking this post to come back to when I'm thinking about editing!

    Love your site!

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  16. This (thinking up all my characters' front--and back--stories) is something I do naturally. It's one of the main reasons I like to write: making up characters. And, like others have pointed out, sometimes the minor characters want to take over the novel. I have to be firm in reining them in.

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  17. Great post as usual!
    On a side note, it confuses me when the narrator speaks for other characters besides the main character for more than a line or two. I'm new to creative writing and it feels like the narrator "belongs" to the main character. I was reading a book recently and the narrator switched characters from chapter to chapter. It was confusing at first and made the book feel choppy. I guess I always thought that other characters lives should only be examined in relation to what's going on in the main character's life, i.e., the main characters thoughts and feelings about them. Does that make sense? Any tips on avoiding confusion in this area? Thanks again :)

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  18. This is great advice! I'm passing on this post.

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