Secondary characters as secret stars

When I was still doing a lot of theatre, generally from the vantage point of the chorus or as a minor lead, I always got the same assignment from the director.

“Go home and think about your character.”

Considering my penchant for imagining vast, bizarre, and interesting things, you would think that this was always one of my favorite assignments.  But actually, I hated it.

I mean…hated it.

Part of the problem with this assignment is that I never had a director who actually explained the purpose behind it.  So whenever they told me to go home and think about my character, I added the colon after the title–Go Home and Think about your Character: An Assignment for People who Weren’t Cast in Leads and Need Something to do with Their Time so They Feel Special.

The other part of the problem was that in my funk, I never really figured out why the hell this was an important part of the production.  I’d give it a half-assed sort of effort.  Like, fiiiine…my name is Ethel and I live in this town and my dad is a baker or some shit. I dance a lot so I don’t get pudgy on pastry.  And I’m into sailors, I guess, because they’re all over the place in this show.

God, I am just so bored right now. Where are the doughnuts?

What I didn’t understand, and what some of my directors perhaps didn’t understand, was that it’s really super key for secondary characters to have strong motivation.  Nothing exists in a vaccuum; you are composed in relation to the other people on stage.  If Ethel doesn’t get all jazzed up about sailors coming to town, that totally undermines like six different songs.  And likely, some of the audience will notice how bored she looks, which will subconsciously affect the way they feel about or relate to the leads, too–if Ethel can’t be bothered, then neither can they.  And just like that, the whole stage world becomes a rippling pool of indifference.

This holds true for writing, I have discovered.  Primary characters do what they do because other characters push them into decision-making situations.  Secondary characters often do the pushing, and they often end up running the behind the scenes of the situations in which decisions are made.  As in, Spencer can’t go and meet Wynter in a coffee shop for a really important conversation without buying coffee from someone, deflecting waiters, and trying to keep his voice down low enough that the busybody in the next booth over can’t hear him.  Which means, secondary characters are actually hugely important.

So, to remind me of this importance, and to avoid the “go home and think about your character” business, I’ve come up with a new question that I ask every secondary character.

“Could you be the secret star of the novel?”

This question, I’ve found, effectively does a couple of things really well.

First, it injects a bit more action, and therefore, power, into the secondary character’s self-fashioning.   I tend to write in a way where the characters do the talking and I do the note-taking, so if I want to write down interesting things, then I have to give them good questions to answer.  “What are your motivations?” doesn’t cut it.  Who really wakes up in the morning and says, hmmm, what are my motivations in life?  But, “Are you a star?”  That usually gets them going.

Second, this question reminds me that these are secret stars, thus inhibiting my tendency toward over-description.  If I could get away with it, I would describe every single character in detail from top to bottom.  But that’s never a good idea (I’m looking at you Jules Verne).  Secrecy also adds a bit of mystery to the assignment.   And as soon as I start to imagine that the secondary characters have distant expressions or knowing smirks or complicated boredoms (beyond doughnuts), I can start seeing them as living, breathing entities with lives I’ll never know the whole of.  And then they can walk through the scenes with a real sense of equality, ricocheting off the main characters and readjusting plot lines and pathways.

So, for example, I have a chapter where Elise visits the Central Market of Atlantis for the first time.  She has a small stipend for necessities, since she arrived with nothing, and she ends up buying a dress at one point in the day.  I really wanted to avoid the whole, smiling shopkeeper sells the pretty young woman a gown, thing.  Which, in turn, meant that I had to make it all a bit more momentous, and ask the shopkeeper if she could be a secret star.

And she looked at me like I was crazy and was all, first of all, my name is Angie, and, absolutely, I’m a secret star.  Think about it.  She’s been a shopkeeper for like fifty years.  She knows what it looks like when someone comes in her shop for a routine purchase, and she knows when it’s something special.  She knows that Elise is a Homecoming Energist, that she’s never seen these kinds of clothes before, and that the dress will totally change her life–in small way, perhaps, but still.  I mean, we all remember different articles of clothing that meant something to us–your first pair of non-velcro shoes, the sweater you wore when you had your first kiss, the professional suit you bought for your first interview, and so on.  As a shopkeeper, she is the gatekeeper to that purchase and to all the moments that will become attached to it.  Elise will remember that this is the very first thing she’s ever bought in Atlantis for the rest of her immortal Energist life.  That’s kind of a big deal.

Even if Angie only watches this moment from the register and briefly explains how energy quota purchases work–which is likely what will happen–I’ll still be able to add some small gestures or modes of explanation or tone of voice that make her much more than smiling furniture.

A few caveats:

If you feel like this question might work for you, keep in mind that this is one of those iceberg questions.  It might all boil down to two sentences in the end.  You might not even name the character in the scene.  In fact, it is sometimes more powerful when you don’t, because readers tend to add names that mean something to them.

Think about it like a house-staging, perhaps.  If you don’t paint your kid’s bedroom cream colored and put out some flowers, thus relinquishing your memories and making room for new ones, your house won’t sell.  Because, according to HGTV, no one in the whole history of time has ever repainted a room.
Wow, this house is otherwise completely perfect, but I just can’t see myself in a burgundy dining room. Such a shame.

Also, don’t overdramatize the thing.  “Elise went into the store, knowing that the her first piece of Energist clothing would change her life.”  No.

Insert age old axiom: Never tell when you can show.

And finally, have fun with the question, but don’t let it sneak up on you and steal away half of your day.  It might take a little practice at first, but the goal is to get to a point where your writing and imagination muscles can take a name or an occupation and wind a quick story around them in a few minutes, allowing you to then go on your merry way and your characters to go on theirs.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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