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Posted Friday, July 1, 2011, at 3:31 PM

There are more characters to your book than just the protagonist and the antagonist. A rich array of secondary characters add a lot to a story, and give your main characters a break. Your hero and heroine can't be at center stage throughout every scene; the secondary characters can take over now and then to offer conflict, comic relief, dramatic exposition -- anything to enrich the story. Just as we have friends and family in our lives, so should your protagonist.

What defines a secondary character? Anyone other than the main characters. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett and Rhett are main characters. But so are Ashley and Melanie Wilkes, who are both so pivitol to the story that they really couldn't be called secondary characters. They're not the protagonists, so I'd say they're just a step below that and of nearly equal importance to the story.

True secondary characters in Gone with the Wind would be Aunt Pittypat, Prissy, Big Sam, Frank Kennedy, to name just a few. (In fact, in the movie version of Gone with the Wind Scarlett's first two husbands were left out entirely, without hurting the story one bit.) And there are many walk-on characters who add to the story but are not vital to the plot -- Belle Watling, the Tarleton twins, and various soldiers and shopkeepers are examples.

To make sure all of your characters are multi-dimensional, create contradictions. There's nothing wrong with having that sweet, cookie-baking grandmother in your story; but how about this -- in an early scene you have the grandmother sit at the kitchen table with her freshly baked plate of cookies; she starts talking about the time when she was one of the "Freedom Riders" in the early 1960s who rode on two buses to the Deep South and encountered great violence. That bit of unexpected information keeps Grandma from being a cliché.

One of my favorite characters in literature is Lennie in Of Mice and Men. He's the Gentle Giant, but one who doesn't know his own strength. He's not the protagonist -- that would be George -- but he is the source of all the conflict. The tragedy is set up when Lennie accidentally kills the mouse he keeps in his pocket because he likes to pet soft things, then kills one of the puppies in the barn the same way. Then, when he accidentally kills Curly's wife, his fate is sealed.

The contradictions you create for your characters are a good way to set the scene for a later action. Grandma is sweet and soft-spoken, but if you're going to have her step up to the plate and show her inner strength at a later point in the story, then you need to have shown another side to her in order for that strength to be believable.

Don't bother, however, to flesh out walk-on characters. If they're just there as a function of the plot, they don't need layers. The waitress who brings your character breakfast once doesn't need a back story. But please -- don't have her chewing gum!

"Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen." Willa Cather

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Your memory is playing tricks on you now (LOL!). Scarlett's first two husbands DO appear in the movie. It is her first TWO CHILDREN that do not exist in the movie!

-- Posted by javimu111 on Sat, Jul 2, 2011, at 1:52 PM

Oh, holy cow, you're right! And of course I remember that now... it was careless on my part. And thank you.

-- Posted by JTennant on Sun, Jul 3, 2011, at 8:54 PM

I've heard about character arcs. what is that, and how important is it?

-- Posted by ggilmore on Wed, Jul 6, 2011, at 7:19 AM

The characters in my novel-in-progress are based on real people I know or have known, but I changed all the names. Someone told me that if the person I used recognized themselves, even with the name change I could get in trouble. Could I get sued over this?

-- Posted by DHarris on Wed, Jul 6, 2011, at 7:21 AM

Character arcs and story arcs are the changes that take place within the story. A character grows, learns lessons - or not. But it indicates some sort of development. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett's character arc is her growth from a spoiled shallow girl to a strong, take-charge (but still somewhat shallow) woman. The story arc for the same book is the change that the South and the inhabitants of Tara undergo during the course of the Civil War.

-- Posted by JTennant on Fri, Jul 8, 2011, at 10:46 AM

As far as basing your characters on real people you know, the concern would be if you're portraying them in a negative light. But if you're writing fiction and you change the names, you could always just insist that your characters are fictional (and include a disclaimer at the beginning of your book stating the same thing) and leave it at that. I would also advise that you do more than just change the names, and also change any identifying characteristics.

Now, that said, I have to add a disclaimer of my own: I'm not an attorney and this is just my common-sense advice. If you're seriously concerned about it, I recommend contacting a literary attorney.

-- Posted by JTennant on Fri, Jul 8, 2011, at 10:53 AM

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Jean Tennant has been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Beginning with short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, she eventually branched out to full-length work, with several novels published by Warner Books, Kensington and Silhouette. Now the owner of Shapato Publishing, LLC, in Everly, Iowa, she teaches writers' workshops throughout the Midwest, for which her schedule can be seen at: www.jeantennant.com. Jean lives in Everly with her husband, Grover Reiser, and their dogs, Kirby and Dakota. Favorite quote: "Outside of a dog, man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx.
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