After numerous re-writes in my fiction, I’ve found I box secondary characters in by putting them in a box. They can’t be developed because I’ve put them in a box right from the start. The boxes can be marked “naive,” “manipulative,” “horny,” “ambitious,” “greedy,” or any other cover-all description. When a reader refers to one of my characters as the “horny one,” I know I have some work to do. When I ask that character to do or say something that doesn’t fit in the box I’ve created for him or her, the reader can sense that the author is using the character to fulfill some other purpose to drive the plot. The character becomes a utility carrier, just carrying the story along.
Sometimes the boxing-in happens because I’ve modeled the character on a real-life person. I choose a person from real-life and prop up the story with the contributions I want the character to make to the story. But there is no organic development and little depth to the character. Luckily, I’ve got an excellent editor who tells me what I’m doing. It’s the role of an editor to find ringers like this and I am in awe how she can detect the false note that rings whenever this character talks or acts. I’m working on a novel with just four major characters; all of them need development. There are minor characters for whom a broad brush works fine. But this character needs to develop or get out of the way of the other three.
How I do that is what rewriting is all about, yes? The plot itself evolves along with this character. What was fuzzy in the story begins to get clear. The character starts influencing the plot and barges into the heart of the action instead of sitting on the sidelines. I think the the critical step is to decide to give the character a lot more complexity that she had at the beginning. The author starts to get inside the character. She can’t be put in a box. She develops adult motivations, characteristics, complexities. She begins to develop a personality. Then she can begin to influence the story, even if she is not as key to the action as the other three.
The result? I’ll talk to my editor and check back in soon.
Paul Mohrbacher is the author of The Magic Fault, mystery fiction. http://www.magicfault.com.