Wednesday, May 20, 2020

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We often spend a lot of time on the backstories of our characters, but how often do we consider their front stories?   

Non-point of view characters don't get nearly enough love and attention as point of view characters. It's understandable, because they're not the ones driving the plot or charming the readers, so our focus is on more critical elements of the novels.

But those characters and their lives have the potential to create conflict and deepen our stories. How they feel, what their goals are, what they want from life, can all affect what the protagonist is trying to do or trying to avoid.

Not knowing how they fit into the world and the story is missing a huge opportunity. At some point, you really want to ask:

What is this character's front story?  

Odds are this isn't a term you've heard before, and I think I'm the only one who uses it. But it's a useful tool for determining how a non-point of view character fits into the story.

Essentially, the front story is a 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 Buffy's story, Shaun would be this plucky colorful little character who showed up from time to time and gave a bigger sense of the world and problem. But he's having his own life, facing his own problems, and dealing with his own issues, and sometimes those overlap with what Buffy is doing.

(Here's more on We Have a History: Making Backstory Work for You)

How Front Story Helps with Plotting

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.

Knowing the front story means the non-point of view characters aren't just cardboard characters who only exist in scenes the protagonist is in. They aren't there only because the plot needs them to be there at that moment. It gives them agency of their own, so the story feels like people live in it even when the main characters aren't around.

Every time I write the front stories for my characters, it deepens the story and the world. I find some characters have short paragraphs, while others have pages of information. For secondary characters the process is easier, because they already have roles to play. Characters I write the backstory for are easier still to write the front story, since they usually have goals and dreams to work with. For minor characters it's even more enlightening, because I find ways to make their small roles affect the plot.

Looking at the story from different character's perspective gives a new perspective on the story. You can see:
  • What they wanted independently from the protagonist that could be potential conflicts
  • What their scene goals were when they were interacting with the protagonist
  • What they were doing when they weren't "on screen"
For example, two smaller characters showed up several times in one of my manuscripts. They were there 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 were great mirrors for my protagonists. These two characters allowed 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 were symbolic layers to my main characters, and through them I could show aspects of my protagonists readers wouldn't otherwise see, and show the consequences that could be their fate if they took a different path.

In another manuscript, a rivalry created a terrible situation for my protagonist to struggle with. I knew why--and better yet, how--the rival was working against her, and this made the problems she faced more realistic. They weren't just obstacles in her way, they were problems created because another character was acting on goals all their own that affected the rest of the story. 

(Here's more on Who Hates Ya Baby? Creating Bad Guys Who Aren't the Antagonist)

Look at your non-point of view 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 the protagonist? Hinder them? 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 interesting stories. For example, nobody would want to read about the cook in my novel's palace, but thinking about how she fit into the story's world made me realize a few things about her that I could use. She actually did have ways to hurt my protagonist, and would probably do it if she got the chance. My protagonist's interactions with this character unfolded differently, and when my protagonist was around this character, tensions rose and those scenes were a whole lot more interesting.

(Here's more on Second Fiddle, Sweeter Music—Using Secondary Characters To Give Your Novel A Bigger Feel)

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?

*Originally published January 2012. Last updated May 2020.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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.

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

  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's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. I like the term `front story'.

  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!


  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.

  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?

  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.

  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.

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

  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. :)


  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.

  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!

  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.

  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 :)

    1. Of all the mistakes I've made with my new WIP, the narrator is not one of them. To me, he/she is simply telling the story. I.E: Jonnie walked into the room & all those that were there, stopped & looked at him. If what's said is a thought from my main character, the narrator may say who it is.

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

  19. Thanks, Janice, for a most interesting article. The question I have is how showing secondary characters POV is best done in stories written in first person as you refer, I think to 3rd person narrative.

    1. Apologies for the late reply. The notification for this wound up in a different folder and I just found it. Hope you're still checking this...

      If you're writing first person, you won't show a secondary character's POV unless you change POVs. For example, you might have two character viewpoints, both in first person. But that's typically only done when both characters are protagonists or main characters. You wouldn't switch just to show another character's POV. If you want to do that, do third person or omniscient.

      But you could show aspects of a secondary character's life through what the first person POV characters observes. They can have conversation with that secondary character about what's going on in their life. Or they might notice behaviors that suggest a problem or a situation.