Monday, January 23, 2012

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I recently 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. Find out what they planned to do with all that history I had given them.

What makes the front story (totally my term here) different from basic plotting is that you aren't trying to craft an exciting story. It's not about finding a cool plot, it's about figuring out how that one character fits in with the rest of your story. What's their life like when the protag isn't around? Kinda like Shaun in Shaun of the Dead. The zombie apocalypse has come, but that's all going on on another street (where Buffy s saving the world probably) and he's just living his life during this time. What he's doing is separate from the "hero," even though their paths will cross.

I took each non-main character and wrote out their story as if it was their book and they were my POV character. I didn't try to craft a new tale or anything, and some characters had short paragraphs if they didn't do much, but what this summary did was allow me to see how that character fit into the overall story and where I might make better use of them.

For secondary characters this was much easier, because they already had roles to play (and characters I wrote 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 protagonists that could be potential conflicts.
  • What their scene goals were when they were interacting with my protags.
  • What they were doing when they weren't on screen.
For example, two smaller characters show up several times in the story. 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 their 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 protags 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 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 protags are solving the novel's conflicts?
  • How would the major plot events affect them?
  • How would the protag'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?
Some characters won't have very interesting stories. Nobody would want to read about the cook in my novel's palace, but by 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 know things that can hurt my protag, and would probably do it if she got the chance. Her interactions with this character will unfold differently now. I'll be thinking about these things as I revise, and when my protag is around this character, tensions will rise and that scene will be a whole lot more interesting.

Other characters will have plenty to offer and might be in the right place at the right time just when you need them. (Like my minor characters whose lives just got more complicated now that I see what I can do with them).

While the story centers around your protagonist, try thinking about how it affects the other people in your book's world. You might find ways to deepen your story 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?


  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.