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.
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?
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?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
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, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) 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.
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