Sunday, 24 April 2016

Common Word Confusions


There are plenty of words that confuse writers – some are obvious, some less so – but they’re part of a large group of words that make us stumble from time to time, and that’s because none of us is perfect. 
There are plenty of reasons why confusions arise. Some are caused by the English language having more than one meaning for a word – like chord and cord, while others cause hesitation because they sound and look the same but have different meanings. Writers just have to learn the differences and be able to spot them when editing.
It’s or Its
Let’s start with the most obvious – It’s versus its.  There is a very simple way to differentiate between the two. One is a contraction of ‘it is’ and the other is a possessive pronoun (belonging to or of), for example:
It’s a lovely day. (Contraction of it is a lovely day.)
The dog wagged its tail. (Possessive pronoun – the tail belongs to the dog).
Lie or Lay
You can lie down or tell a lie and you can lay (an object) down. These types of verbs confuse writers because often they mix lie and lay, depending whether they are writing in the past or present tense.
Lay and lie are verbs used in the present tense. The thing to remember about ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ requires an object, but ‘lie’ does not. It does not require a direct object, therefore we don’t actually lay down, we lie down.  We don’t lie down a book on the table; we lay down a book on the table. So, for example:
I think I might lie down.
There is no object associated with the verb, so the correct use is ‘lie’. In the present tense, the word ‘lay’ means to put something (an object) down, for example:
I will lay the weapon on the table.
In this case, the object of the sentence is the weapon, which the character lays on the table. So far, so straightforward...
If you are writing in the past tense, however, then ‘lie’ becomes ‘lay’, for example:
He lay down and slept.
I lay awake.
And this is where writers come unstuck - the past tense of ‘lay’ becomes ‘laid’, for example:
He laid down the weapon.
She laid down the rules for them.
It’s also worth remembering that ‘laid’ is also the past participle of ‘lay’, and ‘lain’ is the past participle of lie, for example:
He had laid down the weapon.
She had lain down yesterday morning.
And of course, one last thing to note is ‘laid’ is often confused with the act of reclining. ‘He laid back’, for instance, is incorrect. It should be ‘He lay back.’ (Past tense of lie).
It’s understandable why ‘Lie’ and ‘Lay’ cause no end of confusion, but writers should try to learn the differences.
Sat or Sitting
This is another one that catches a lot of writers out and drives plenty of us crazy. But again, it’s all to do with tenses and sentence constructions.  
Writers often write something like this: ‘She was sat at the bus stop waiting for the bus.’
It looks okay, but ‘sat’ in this case is the past participle of the verb sit. While it might look fine to most people, grammatically it is incorrect. The correct form should be, ‘She was sitting at the bus stop waiting for the bus.’ And that’s because it shows the past continuous tense – in other words, in this example the act of sitting is a continuous action. More examples of past continuous tense:
She was sitting at her desk when the phone rang.
She was sitting by the bar when he walked in.
The simple past tense version of the bus stop example would be ‘She sat down and waited for the bus.’ This denotes a completed action, not a continuous one. More examples:
He sat down beside her.
She sat at the bar.
Accept or Except
This one fools writers because although they sound the same, they actually have different meanings.
The word ‘Accept’, which is a verb, has many different meanings, for instance it means to receive something, admit to something or consent to something, for example:
I accept your invitation.
He accepted the gift.
I accept I did wrong. I accept your position.
‘Except’, on the other hand has different meanings, as well as different functions. It can mean apart from, with the exception of or excluding, and it can be used as a conjunction or a preposition, for example:
It went well, except for the mishap with the broom.
The cars were all there, except mine.
She had everything except the passport.
Again, it’s all about learning about the differences between these words and knowing which one to correctly choose for your narrative.
Affect or Effect
They sound the same and with the exception of one letter, they look the same, but that’s where the similarity ends.
The word ‘Affect’ is a verb.  It means to change or influence something, to have an effect on something, usually emotionally, for example:
The loss of the house affected her badly.
He was affected after losing the game.
Effect, on the other hand is both a noun and a verb and it means to cause something to happen or as a result or consequence.
The new policies won’t effect change.
The freshly ground coffee had a positive effect on his mood.
There’s a reason why these two words are high up on the confusion list. The similarity they share fools writers into thinking they’ve chosen the correct word, when in fact they have used the wrong one. Again, it’s important to learn the differences and meanings.
If in doubt, consult a grammar book.
I’ve deliberately left out the top two words that confuse writers – That and Which – because there is so much to explain and these deserve an entire post dedicated to it...

Next week: Which or That – Does it matter?

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Focusing on Small Details Can Count


When we think about detail, we tend to think big and bold, and the lush, beautiful descriptions that teem with colour and visual prompts; the kind of thing that should fill a novel, but while these details help make a story, it’s often the smaller details that give it that extra dimension. That’s because sometimes we notice smaller details more than we do huge detail. It may be that our brains are wired to notice these thing.
Writing is no different – minute details can add to the narrative in a subtle way which still enhances the story.
So what kinds of detail make a difference?
The devil really is in the detail. How you create that detail is up to you, but the effect you can create with it is the key to good fiction, because the correct balance of detail – from the biggest detail to the smallest, goes a long way to help make the story memorable rather than forgettable.
Many writers forget the small detail, simply because they assume small details don’t matter, but in the grand scheme of things, they actually do matter. The small details do more than highlight a splinter of information that the reader might otherwise overlook, they actually have many functions, because unlike huge swathes of detail, we use the small details to provoke the reader’s senses – the olfactory, auditory, gustatory, kinaesthetic and the visual.
Olfactory
The sense of smell – although in reality the reader cannot possibly smell anything in written a book, small details within the description allow their senses to imagine it. So the strong earthy aroma of coffee from a cafĂ©, the sweetness of honeysuckle on the breeze or the hint of freshly cut grass – they all help the reader visualise the scene. Not only that, but olfactory details takes them from the ordinary into the extraordinary; it creates a sense of atmosphere and mood and nostalgia, because the one thing we all know is true - imagining certain smells can evoke different memories, especially ones from our childhood.
If you can evoke these moods and feelings within your reader, you also create a connection, a sense of immediacy.
Auditory
Again, when reading, the reader can’t physically hear anything other the words in their mind, so it’s up to the writer to help the reader hear all that is going on, and in some scenes small details can go a long way. For instance, the constant drip of a tap in the distance can create atmosphere. Or what about the gentle hum of rain on a roof? What mood could it create? The rustle of leaves. The sound of someone breathing...or whispers.
They’re all small details on their own which can create greater detail in context to the entire scene. The greater the detail in this sense, the greater the reaction you invoke in your reader.
Gustatory
Food is one of those things writers tend to forget about – completely. They forget that their protagonist hasn’t eaten for days on end in the novel, or they forget that the protagonist is superhuman and doesn’t actually need food (or the bathroom, for that matter). How many of your characters go through life changing events and yet never stop to actually eat anything or go to the bathroom?
Of course, a scene doesn’t always require that the character is eating to describe different scents, but small sensory details that hint at aromas can help build a scene for the reader.
Gustatory details can be something as simple as describing the sweetness of sugar on a pancake, or the sour taste of medicine, or maybe the tingling freshness of mint. And surprisingly, gustatory detail can also evoke nostalgic memories for readers.
Kinaesthetic
Kinaesthetic refers to the physical – the sense of touch, what the character feels when he touches something.  Not only that but it also refers to external stimulation such as the heat of the sun on the face, the feeling of a fly on the hand, the feel of water around the body when we’re swimming.
This type of detail is especially effective when in character POV, where the reader is privy to the main character’s thoughts and feelings, so the writer can explore the feel of someone else’s skin in an intimate scene for example, or the feel of cool raindrops during a stormy scene. Or perhaps it could describe the fierceness of the sun’s heat in desolate landscape.
Little details like this add the realism of your scenes, because the reader will know what these sensations feel like and they will attribute a memory to it, this creating that all important connection and sense of immediacy.
Visual
The most obvious detail that writers use is the visual. There are so many details that can evoke a huge range of imagery for the reader that the visual encompasses so many things, because the visual is virtually all description.
But it’s the detail that counts. Small details can sometimes be symbolic, and symbolism plays an important role in writing. That detail could anything, like a colour, or a certain flower. Perhaps it’s starkness of a landscape, or the darkness of an abandoned building. It can be absolutely anything.
Details create more than background information. They can provide the reader with sensory snippets which, in turn, can create a virtual landscape in the reader’s mind.  
The beauty of such details is that you don’t have to overdo them – not every scene requires pages of luscious and rich description.  It’s all about subtlety. Let the details stand out in smaller scenes; make the reader notice certain things, make them think, make them wonder, but above all, make them visualise.

Next week: Common word confusions

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Art of Captivating First Lines


Do you really need to have captivating first lines? The simple answer to that is there are no rules that say you have to, but the reason writers look for captivating first lines is not only to grab the reader’s attention, but also to maintain it.

Great opening lines can do that because they have the power to lure and entice the reader, to spark their imagination, to compel them and intrigue them. It makes them want to read the whole story, not just the opening line.

Stephen King said of them: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story”.

There are plenty of writers who ignore the concept of a captivating first line and instead launch into lots of unnecessary narrative (info dump) or they overload with backstory in the belief the reader needs all this information to understand what the story is about, but the opposite is true. Less is more.

So what makes a captivating first line?

It’s one that effortlessly leads your reader into the story, one that evokes imagery and mood and sets the tone. After all, the job of the opening line is to capture your reader’s attention and keep it so that they read the entire book. More importantly, it’s the proceeding sentences and paragraphs that really count – the unfolding story thereafter.

How do they work?

They work by drawing the reader into the fictional world you’ve created, they act as a lure, a bait, they tempt and tease so that they have to know more about this fictional world and the people that inhabit it because readers just love to read about interesting, unique characters; people we would either love to be, or be with.

Writers use these captivating first lines not only to hook the reader, but to establish the voice of the novel. They set the tone by hinting at something bad that will happen or has happened, and of course, they provoke and illicit emotions from us.

Many first lines raise questions that, as a reader, you desperately want to find the answer to. Some of the opening lines of well known novels have achieved this:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984, George Orwell.

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” - The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath.

“I bother only with widows.” – Tender Prey, Patricia Roberts.

“They’re out there.” - One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer, Willian Gibson.

These first liners intrigue, they catch the reader off guard, they draw the reader in to want to know more, but the thing about first lines is that they can be foreboding, dark, light-hearted, mysterious, emotional, clever, surprising...in fact anything you want them to be.

If you are looking to try traditional publishing, then it’s even more important to get the opening line to your novel just right, because it has to entice not just any reader, but a potential agent and publisher. It needs to make them sit up and take notice.

Every opening line is different, and all of them fall within the context of the whole story, so the opening should be two-fold – to entice the reader enough to want to read further, and to introduce the story in such a way the opening doesn’t detract from the story, but rather enhances it.

Some writers are vivid with their openings. Some are unflinching. Some are powerful, and when the initial surprise disappears, the story is then firmly established and the reader is hooked. As the writer, you want their attention.

If you want to write a captivating first line, think of the story as whole, think about context. Don’t just write open with a bang which has nothing to do with the story. The opening must connect to the rest of the story. You should ask yourself what kind of opening you want – one that is dynamic (creates mystery, shock, surprise or raises questions) or one that sets the mood and tone and creates a certain atmosphere.

The best way to familiarise yourself with them is to study different opening lines from a range of novels. You’ll find most of them do the following:
  • Set the tone of the story
  • Establish a connection with the reader through mystery or conflict or emotion
  • Raise questions that the reader wants answers to
  • Shock or surprise the reader into knowing more

Some writers spend a lot of time on their opening, while some create an opening line instantly. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you try not to overcomplicate it or overthink it. Most of the best openers are short and simple.

Don’t open with backstory or lots of information, otherwise the reader just won’t be interested and try to avoid prologues – these can be a turn off, unless you can make the opening line of the prologue mesmerising enough to lure the reader.
Remember, there are no rules about this, but logically the opening line should captivate. We want the reader’s attention. We want them to read our stories, and continue reading.
Next week: Why focusing on small details is important


Saturday, 26 March 2016

How to Avoid Mid a Story Crisis – Part 2


In part 1 we looked at three of the various ways a story can sag in the middle, what is commonly referred to as the ‘mid story crisis’, things like running out of steam, not knowing what goes in the middle section and the characters running out of things to say to move the story forward, so in this concluding part we’ll take a look at some more reasons and the ways that writers can avoid these common problems.
If you find that your story struggles with what to do next, this is usually because you have run out of ideas – the kind of ideas that should push the story forward. Many stories tend to start off with plenty of momentum and fire, but then they start to trundle after ten or eleven chapters and eventually they become a chore because the zest of those first ten or eleven chapters has worn off.
And the magic reason why? The writer hasn’t planned anything. They haven’t outlined chapters or thought through scene scenarios, nor do they truly know what the main character’s goal actually is. If a writer can’t be bothered to outline the novel – a complex piece of work – there is no point trying to ‘wing’ it.
It doesn’t work.
Another common problem is when the story begins to wander off on a tangent or it meanders aimlessly so far from the plot that it bears no relation to the actual story or has little connection with the characters. This kind of problem isn’t always noticeable straightaway and only becomes apparent when you do a read through once the novel is complete.
It’s common for writers to drift off course – we’ve all done it, but sometimes our focus shifts from one thing to another, or a subplot or thread takes our attention away from the main plot and we don’t realise we’ve drifted from the original story path. The good thing is that during the read through, the problem will become very apparent and it’s easily corrected with re-writing.
This problem happens because there has been no planning as to where the story might go and how it might get there. This is why, unfortunately, a lot of novels are rubbish – the writer has simply gone with the flow in the hope that all those tangent strands kind of knit together and make sense by the end. That rarely works.
Always know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. It will save a lot of time editing and re-writing.
Another classic symptom of a sagging middle is padding. Huge wads of it. This is when the writer ‘pads’ out the story with all sorts of extraneous stuff in order push up the word count and inch towards the ending, without the need to form ideas or be creative. In reality, the padding isn’t pertinent to the story, it’s just unnecessary wordage when ideas and creativity – and everything else – is lacking, and readers won’t thank you for it.
Unfortunately, padding is a huge problem and a serious symptom of desperation in the face of no fresh ideas, a lack of planning, not knowing where the story should go, or being unsure of what to do with the characters. It’s like trying to put together a broken teapot – nothing quite fits exactly as it should.
If you start padding the story with the superfluous, then you know there is a major problem. To correct it you will have to go back through the work to identify the problem areas – and examine why you’ve used padding – then you need to get rid of it. You may end up doing more writing in the end to compensate for the padding.
More experienced writers will recognise when they’re padding and will do something about it before it gets out of hand, however, the best way to avoid all these problems and avoid the mid story crisis is to plan, plan, plan.
Before you even start to write, know exactly what the story is about and whose story it is. Know why the story is taking place, and make sure that the main character has a clear goal to achieve, plenty of dilemmas to face and problems to solve. You have to know how their journey begins and how it might end.
You must know roughly what happens at each stage of the novel, and what subplots and themes there might be, rather than trying to write with virtually no ideas or clear vision  in mind, because this type of writing simply doesn’t work.
Of course, there are no golden rules in this instance and writers can do as they please, but if a writer wants to avoid that mid-story crisis – and the problems associated with it – then the best way to produce a quality, solid piece of work is to plan and plot in advance.
It’s one of the smartest things any writer can do.

Next week: The art of captivating first lines

Sunday, 20 March 2016

How to Avoid Mid a Story Crisis – Part 1


There are lots of reasons why writers get to a certain point in their novel and then hit a brick wall. They seem unable to proceed, as though stuck with nowhere to go, nothing to write or nothing to say.
Some say this is a symptom of writer’s block, but any blockage lies with the writer, not the blank page, so more often than not, the gradual realisation that that the book is going nowhere is known as a mid-story crisis. The ‘crisis’ in question can encompass all manner of things, so we’ll take a look at the main reasons, why they happen and ways writers can recognise them and combat them.
The good news that most writers have suffered the ‘mid story crisis’ at some point in their writing careers, so it’s not uncommon.
Every writer starts their novel out with enthusiasm and fire, but then halfway through the process, things become sluggish, writing becomes harder and eventually the writing grinds to a halt. They struggle to understand why this happens, particularly when they have all the ingredients of a great story - a tight plot, interesting and plausible characters and plenty of conflict. But the problem is rarely anything to do with these.
The reasons that writing sags halfway through a novel are more complex and every writer should learn to recognise the symptoms:-
1.  What actually goes in the middle?
2. The story has run out of steam
3. The characters have nothing interesting to say
4. There are no new ideas – the story struggles on what happens next
5. The story meanders
6. Padding
It’s an obvious question, but it’s surprising just how many writers ask this. What goes in the middle, what should I write? Well, the heart of your story, that’s what.
We tend to divide a novel into the sections (they’re not acts, since you’re not writing a play, and it shouldn’t be confused for one). There is a beginning, middle and an end. The beginning is the anchor for the story – it must start at the heart of the action, introduce your protagonist and their dilemma and it must grab the reader.
The middle is where the story settles in and establishes other characters, provides information, subplots evolve, it explores the themes in the story, it creates different conflicts, it creates obstacles for the main character to overcome, but more importantly, it sets up how the ending will unfold.
The ending, your last section, is where subplots and plot twists are resolved, where revelations may occur and the main character finally attains his or her goal, with a satisfactory conclusion.
It becomes clear why some writers struggle with the middle section – it has more going on than the beginning or the ending put together. It’s where the important action takes place, and often the problem of what should make up that middle section manifests because the writer hasn’t bothered to outline anything or plan what might happen during the story.
This is why they struggle to write or maintain the middle section.
This is also a predominant reason why the story can run out of steam as it emerges from the excitable beginning section. The saggy middle happens because of one overwhelming fact – the writer hasn’t bothered to plan the novel. Writers who write by the seat of their pants don’t realise that the result is a headache-inducing mess – they never see that it’s a mess, and rarely admit they’re wrong about it, but lack of planning always lead to weak story structure and an uphill struggle to make it all fit together and make sense, (which leads to the problem of forced storytelling).
How do you rectify this major problem? Before you even write a word of the story, do a brief plan or chapter outline of likely events; create a rough guide from which to work. Most writers get the beginning part of the novel right, but often struggle with the middle and the end. That’s because they haven’t thought the story through.
A novel is a complex structure, so to write it without any thought to how it will evolve is just foolish.
What about when characters run out of stuff to say? It’s not just the characterisation that suffers; it also means the story isn’t moving forward, since character dialogue does just this, and if your story isn’t moving forward, then the story has failed.
But why do characters run out of things to say? Again, it’s all to do with planning at the beginning. A rough guide helps the writer navigate through the story, from chapter to chapter, scene to scene, with enough going on to give the characters plenty to say – that is, plenty of pertinent things. If they have plenty to do, they will have plenty to say.
When characters start talking about the mundane or the kind of things that have nothing to do with the story, it’s because there is no further story for them to tell – if no more events and incidents happen, then there is nothing for them to talk about.
If you plan your novel in advance, however, then you’ll plot those incidents and events, and you’ll do so on an escalating basis. You’ll also have ideas for emerging subplots, so characters will have lots to say because there will be plenty of conflict, emotion and tensions. And at the same time, the story will move forward, giving the reader the impetus to keep reading, to want to find out what happens next.
In Part 2 we’ll look at three more reasons for the cause of a mid-story crisis – lack of ideas, a meandering story and the use of padding, and ways to avoid them.

Next Week: How to Avoid Mid a Story Crisis – Part 2

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Importance of Supporting Characters


Last week we looked at how you create a cast of supporting characters, and this week we continue the theme by looking at just how important those supporting characters are.
 
Nothing happens in any story without the secondary characters getting involved on many different levels. They contribute more to any story than just “being in the background”. Their importance shouldn’t be ignored – they don’t just interact with the main characters or provide a foil, but instead they help advance the plot, they move the story forward, carry subplots, heighten conflict, reveal information and do much more.
 
Supporting characters also need to be vivid – they won’t share the same amount of time in the spotlight as your protagonist and antagonist – so they need to reflect real people, they should be intriguing and interesting enough for the reader to care about them.
 
Plot Advancement
 
It’s surprising just how some secondary characters shoulder more story than you think. If done correctly, they help to make the story rather than hinder or cause problems with it. Imagine a story without them. Unless you are actually writing a story with just one character, the world that your protagonist inhabits will be a pretty lifeless one. There would be little tension, little conflict, no subplots, little character development...in fact, there wouldn’t be much at all.
 
That’s why we need minor characters to fill those voids and help the plot evolve.
The characters you create are always acting and reacting to what is happening, either directly with the protagonist/antagonist, or through subplots, which means they are brilliant at advancing the plot, which they do through their dialogue and their actions. That’s because they are often the cause of tension and conflict, which every writer knows is paramount to moving a story forward.
 
Their appearance also allows the main character to interact and become involved with them in so many ways and on so many levels, so the plot always gets to move forward.
 
But the single most important reason we have secondary characters is to help tell the story and advance the plot.
 
Subplots
 
Often writers assign subplots to secondary characters, or subplots that involve an important secondary character and the protagonist. Their role is vital, because a main character can only do so much within the main story arc, so subplots are an excellent way of giving more for the reader.
There may be a romance side story with the hero and the secondary character – this is an often used subplot. There could be an instance where a secondary character plots against the main character. Subplots like these, with secondary characters at the helm, help to create tension and move the story forward.
 
They Help Develop Themes
 
Secondary characters are a rich resource - they engage one another, they interact with the main characters and with the plot to enhance and bring forward the themes of any novel. Through them, the writer can highlight those themes.
 
For example, in a story about war, if two secondary characters are punished in a prison camp while attempting to help the main character to escape, their ordeal may highlight the themes of cruelty and desperation. Or there could be a minor character that surprises the main character with an act of generosity to help him out, thus bringing to light the theme of kindness. Other secondary characters might be callous or mean in order to show the theme of evil.
 
That’s how easy it is for secondary characters to help show the reader the themes of the novel. Writers use their minor characters effectively and cleverly, so much so that the reader doesn’t even notice, but they understand the development of the secondary characters and they understand the themes.
 
They Heighten Conflict
 
Secondary characters are defined by their actions; they are often the root cause of conflict because they can be confrontational, deceptive, duplicitous or even horrible with the relationship between other characters.
 
Writers use minor characters to spark off others, to lay the foundations to further conflict and tension or to help foreshadow events. They can cause arguments or disagreements, they can set off a chain of events, they can be like a naughty toddler, out to cause mayhem. Conversely, they can also be helpful and kind and bring positive change to the main character.
 
They can be so useful in setting up certain important scenes, and not all secondary characters are the same. They are all as individual as us.
 
Character Development
 
The main character needs secondary characters for interaction. Actions and reactions are important – what characters do and how they react push the story along and give it momentum. And by doing that, they also help the main character develop as they story unfolds; they add contrast and depth and add layers to the underlying story, so they are much more than just making up the numbers.
 
They work with your main character, rather than overshadow him or her. Their actions and reactions help develop all your characters in direct relation to the story arc.
 
They Reveal Information
 
Main characters can’t do everything the story demands of them, which is why we have secondary characters to do that for them, and one of the ways to use these characters is to provide or feed useful information to the reader.
 
In other words, they are a great way to reveal certain things, to drop hints or to foreshadow. They do this through direct actions, their dialogue or their interactions with the main character.
 
Some of the most memorable supporting characters leave their mark because they’re so well written and the writer has used them so well. Think of Red in the Shawshank Redemption. What about Orr in relation to Yossarian in Catch-22, Sirius Black in the Harry Potter books, or young Beth, in Little Women?
 
They are characters we love and loathe in equal measure, yet they all make us remember them. Minor characters can make a big impact, so never forget their importance.
 
Next week: How to avoid a mid-story crisis.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Creating a Supporting Cast of Characters


While every good story needs memorable main characters, they are nothing without a supporting ensemble of secondary characters. That’s because it’s not just your main characters that carry the story – other characters play an important role in conveying the story, too.
While secondary characters don’t drive the story in the same way that the antagonist does, they move it forward in their own ways; they shoulder the responsibility for different points of the story and they strengthen it when involved with subplots. They often have strong connections to the main character – they might be family members, friends or colleagues, or even enemies. They also have strong connections with the story arc and subplots.
Any supporting cast of characters has their own little part to play in the story. In other words, they have a reason to be there. Why are they there? What will they do for the story? What is their motivation? What conflict will they cause? How will they move the story forward? How will the directly affect the main character?
Once you’ve answered those questions and you find that there is no real reason for that character to be in the story, you should cut them.
So how do you create the right supporting characters?
Writers tend to go awry because they don’t spend enough time developing the right secondary characters. There’s a lot to be said about planning in advance before writing a novel, and characters are no different. Plan your characters before you write. Get the right names for them, give them backgrounds and history and make them believable people.
Conversely, writers sometimes spend too much time creating insignificant characters that bring nothing to the story and just make it worse. By all means plan them, but not too much that it takes up too much time and effort.
The other common problem is that writers – especially beginners – often create too many characters in the belief that the story needs them. It doesn’t.
Create too many characters and the reader won’t know whether they’re coming or going with who’s doing what, where and with whom. It will be too confusing for them and they just won’t read the story. Too few characters and the story might become too weak; it would be hard to move it forward.
The key here is balance. In order for the reader to keep up with the people that populate your story, it’s advisable to have no more than a handful of characters that they can follow easily.
So, with a modest sized cast of characters, you need to give them a reason to be part of the story. That means they have to have motivation, just like your main characters. Add a little background information. What is that character’s relationship with the main character? Is there a friendship or something deeper? Is there some conflict – friendly or otherwise?
Do they represent something within the story, such as a moral, a warning, a foreshadowing or something symbolic? Many writers use secondary characters as metaphors – some represent evil or hope, for instance. In other words, secondary characters have relevance to the story and the protagonist.
As with both protagonist and antagonist, any secondary character should be just as flawed and three dimensional, so make sure they have their own personalities and quirks – this provides familiarity and immediacy, which the readers love. It makes the characters ordinary, just like your readers. Just because they are secondary doesn’t mean they have to be made of cardboard.
Give them strengths as well as weaknesses, just like real people.
Your supporting cast will provide for and represent different aspects of the story. They should help the story move forward. They should assist your main character in his or her quest, but never overshadow them.
To create a supporting cast of characters:

  1. Plan your characters before you write.
  2. There should be the right amount of characters – not too many or too few.
  3. They should have a little backstory.
  4. They must be relevant to the story.
  5. There should be connection to the main character and the story or subplot.
  6. They must have a reason to be there; they have motives.
  7. They should represent something within the story.
  8. They should be three dimensional, with flaws, strengths and weaknesses.
  9. They should provide opportunity for conflict.


Things to Avoid

There are all sorts of problems that writers create when they gather their supporting cast together and one major problem is when secondary characters overshadow the main character. This occurs because the writer focuses too much scene time on a support character instead of the main character.

Similarly, writers often inadvertently switch importance of characters halfway through writing, which means the protagonist and secondary characters swap places and that just confuses the story for writer and reader.

Another common problem that writers fall back on is when they invent a secondary character as a prop to plug a huge plot hole or they bring in a character for the sake of drama or tension. It doesn’t work, it’s contrived, and the reader won’t thank you for it.

Creating a supporting cast of characters is vital for a good story; people we will remember, love, dislike, laugh with and become attached to. Without them, there wouldn’t be much of a story, so just remember to develop them and flesh them out properly.

Next week we’ll continue the theme with supporting characters and just how important they are to any story.

Next week: The Importance of Secondary Characters