Monthly Archives: December 2014

Writing Secondary Characters from the Inside Out

My growth as a writer consists largely of “Well, DUH!” moments, where I realize in a blazing epiphany something super obvious I should have known all along. My latest is about writing secondary characters, and I’d like to share it with you. (I can’t say that without hearing a folk guitar intro in the background, so feel free to imagine one.)

Here it is in a nutshell: Write supporting characters from the inside, not the outside.

For years, I’ve been trying to take to heart the advice that characters other than the main character should have stuff going on, too — that they could each be the hero of their own story. For all major support characters (love interests, villains, BFFs, etc), I generally have sections in my notes where I plot out their arc, figure out their goals and flaws and fears, and all that good stuff. I thought that was enough, and sometimes I got good results that way. But other times, no matter how good a character’s arc looked on paper, I couldn’t make them come to life in the story.

I have one particular character in the book I’ve been revising who gave me a hell of a time. I couldn’t get him to work. I redesigned him completely several times, gave him more plot and more interesting relationships with other characters, and rewrote his scenes over and over. But each time I sent a new draft to beta readers, every single one of them unerringly singled him out as the weakest character — and they were right.

So I tried something I hadn’t done before. I tried to inhabit him as if he were the main character. While I was folding laundry, or in the shower, or driving to the store, I ran scenes in my head with him as the viewpoint character, letting him drive the scene. Thinking his thoughts, feeling his feelings, making his choices.

It helped immensely. I went back and rewrote everything the character said or did. I don’t know yet if he’s where he needs to be… but he’s finally a Real Boy to me now. He can talk and argue with the other characters on his own in my head, while before if I had him in a scene he was just filling the purpose I needed filled or providing a backboard for another character to bounce off.

I’m now in the early planning stages for a new book, and I’m trying the same thing with each of the major characters. For instance, there’s an antagonistic character who I originally envisioned as a flat minor villain (flavor: Ambitious Sociopath Vanilla). But then I tried really treating her like the hero of her own story — not just making notes about her arc, but getting inside her head and writing some of her story in my imagination. I wound up with a far better understanding of why she’s doing what she’s doing, and she expanded in much more interesting dimensions, becoming more human and tragic (if still ultimately a villain).

I have no idea why I wasn’t doing this before. It seems like a no brainer, right? But for many of my supporting characters, I was writing them from the outside, with no idea what their inner headspace was really like. Writing for the effect they’d have on the scene, or the interactions they’d have with the main character, rather than inhabiting them and driving their actions from inside their thoughts and feelings.

Let’s just say a more immersive approach is working better for me so far. Well, DUH.


Dear Newbie Querier Me, Part Two: Forget Personalization

(This is another thing I wish I could go back in time and tell myself at the beginning of my querying career.)

Dear Newbie Querier Me,

I know you keep reading that you need to personalize each query to the specific agent you’re querying. I know you see agent interview after agent interview where they talk about what a difference good personalization can make. But listen to me carefully now: that advice is for other people. Not you. For the love of chocolate, stop trying to personalize your queries.

You didn’t meet those agents at conferences. You don’t have a referral. You aren’t going to impress them by saying you love their famous client, because everyone loves their famous client, and besides, their client you love is a picture book author and you’re writing YA. I know they say to let them know why you’re querying them in particular… but the fact is, for almost every agent you query, the answer is because I read everything about you I could find on the web and you represent my category/genre and seem really cool.

That is not actually useful or interesting information. Skip it and get to your story.

Most of all, Newbie Querier Me, don’t try to make charming small talk or any such crap. You can’t do that. Sure, you read success stories about people who did that in their query letters and it worked out for them, but those people probably did not grow up in Massachusetts. You live in a state where making small talk with strangers is considered an invasion of privacy and kind of rude. You never learned how to do it without sounding like a creepy stalker. Stop trying. Just stop.

If you want facts and figures, consider this, Newbie Querier Me: You will spend hours personalizing many queries. You will get many agent requests. You will never, even once, get a request on a query you personalized. You suck at this. Stop shooting yourself in the foot. No one will notice if you skip the personalization, but they sure as hell will notice if you screw it up.

Love and Kisses,

Future Agented You

(PS) To those reading this who are not me, if you’re one of the lucky ones who actually has specific connections to mention (met the agent at a conference, have a referral, etc), or who is good at this personalization stuff and not intimidated by it, go right ahead and do it! Don’t let my pathetic failures hold you back if this is an area where you can genuinely shine.

But if you’re like me and you dread the personalized section of your query, do yourself a favor and leave it out. Just make sure you get the name right, and do your research to make sure the agent is seeking what you’re querying and is a good fit for you. It’s your story they really care about anyway.


On Tearing Down Walls

I grew up wanting to see more girls with swords on book covers. When I find one, it still makes me feel all warm and happy inside (especially if she’s wearing sufficient clothing, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue). It means I have a place in stories — a place I want, and a place I can be proud of. And a place in stories can carve you out a place in the real world, very directly. If you see female warriors, astronauts, and scientists in books and movies and games, you’re far less likely to question that they can exist.

I didn’t have to grow up wanting to see more people with my skin color on book covers. But lots of kids do. We need to change that, now more than ever.

The news lately has made it too horribly, tragically clear what happens when we see our fellow human beings as Other. We need to get all colors of faces on book covers, in movies, in games. And not just as the Token Black Guy on the team of 6 or even the Hero’s Best Friend… and certainly not just as the criminal, the thug, or the villain’s non-speaking lieutenant. We need diverse heroes, scientists, magicians, love interests, teachers — characters you want to invite into your living room. Characters you’d trust to watch your kids or save your planet.

We have to carve out that space in our stories. A safe, trusted, awesome space for all our friends and family in this wide world with its rainbow of people colors. Because what people see in stories, they will expect in reality.

Our imagination is our greatest power. Use yours. Create stories, art, and games that embrace and empower all kinds of people, diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and more. Your kings, gods, heroes, and scholars don’t need to be white straight dudes. They can be, but there are a lot of other options out there. And by using one of them, you can make someone feel happy and included. You can open a door that might have been closed otherwise. You can help show people raised in prejudice a wider world.

Who knows? You might even save a life.