The Agile Writers approach to writing a novel focuses clearly around the hero figure and their story. But, the more you step into the world of your hero, the more you recognize the need for fully developed secondary characters.
The hero can only have as much depth as his or her world, after all. So, while deliberate strategies for fleshing out secondary characters are not built into the Agile Writer method currently, we had a lively discussion around this topic at a recent meeting. Some important quandaries emerged from our discussion:
How do you develop your secondary characters? How do you create a compelling Villain or Enemy of your Hero? How do you ensure that the Villain doesn’t “steal the show” and become the most interesting character in your book? How do you create a Hero that evokes emotional investment on the part of the reader? When is the appropriate time in the writing process to attend to developing the secondary characters?
The Storyboarding process at Agile Writers is already very thorough and takes most writers between two and four months to complete. Adding more work on the front-end of the writing process might cross over into unhelpfulness at some point. After all, people come to the group because they want to write, not spend forever planning. New writers could easily lose steam if it takes too long to get to the writing process itself.
For me, the issue of developing my secondary characters came up organically in the early days of writing my second draft. I was happy with the plot of my novel, but felt like some depth was still lacking. The story needed more voices, perspectives and subplots. I wanted it to feel richer, more vivid, more compelling, and easier for a reader to become immersed in.
The solution, for me, was focusing more attention on some of my secondary characters, especially the Villain. Much of my story up to that point was told from the vantage point of my hero. After all, it is her story. But she seemed too self-aware too early in the novel. I needed the perspectives of other characters to communicate some things about my hero that maybe she didn’t even recognize about herself.
Part of creating an amply flawed hero is the limitations that this necessarily sets on the character’s understanding, especially in the first half to 2/3 of the novel. They have a somewhat flat perspective at times because of their own, very necessary, limitations. You need other characters to fill in the picture for the reader. Otherwise, you err on the side of an omniscient hero, who “knows too much too soon” or a novel that lacks richness because of the main character’s limitations.
The first scenario, where the hero is too savvy too soon, results in a terribly flat character arch. There’s no room for the hero to grow if they are already so wise at the beginning of the story.
The second danger, a novel lacking richness because of the hero’s limited perspective, makes for a boring book. The reader quickly tires of the hero’s limited scope. They may put the book down because of its lack of sophistication.
As for how to create compelling characters, we agreed on a few key ingredients. Backstories are imperative. Show where your characters come from to give us a sense of who they are. Also, complicate them. Perfect angels and inhumane devils are boring characters. You need a hero with flaws and a villain with some admirable qualities, even if they are destructive and have ill-intentions. It is also important, we all agreed, to keep the hero as the most compelling character of the story. The reader is following the hero’s journey. It’s their growth, their motivations that are the engine behind your plot.
As for the timing, I found the start of my first macro-editing to be the perfect time to revisit my secondary characters and give them some depth. I already had a plot that was entirely motivated by my hero’s journey, so there was no danger of the arch of the story getting muddied by secondary characters. And I had learned enough about the secondary characters through writing my first draft that I could easily flesh out their backstories and personalities.
But, everyone’s writing process is a little different. How have you handled rounding out secondary characters?