Put Me in Coach—When Your Characters Demand a Bigger Role
Recently, Charlaine Harris used the title phrase in Q&A I heard her do recently and it made an impression. She was talking about characters. I was trying to listen and write at the same time, but when she said it, I suddenly heard John Fogarty's Centerfield in my head.
She talked about many aspects of writing, but her comments on character struck a chord. Aurora Teagarden, Sookie Stackhouse, and Lily Bard, are memorable without doubt. But in this instance she was talking about secondary and minor characters. The author of over forty books, she is an inspiration to writers everywhere.
I've written a lot of books now; I've been published for over 30 years. I hope with every book I learn something new, and with every new novel I try to improve the process of writing. Charlaine Harris
What does a baseball song have to do with writing? Like the aspiring player in Fogarty's song, minor and secondary characters have their dreams. They are on the sideline, begging to be put in centerfield. It made me think about why writers make the choices they do. I searched for other writers thoughts on the process. There were over a hundred answers but I chose six to share.
⭐️Nikole Beckwith: “If you’re inviting people into a story, invite them into all parts of it. Inhabit each character as fully as possible.”
⭐️Ray Bradbury: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
⭐️Rita Mae Brown: “Character is destiny. Change, growing from within and forced from without, is the mainspring of character development.”
⭐️Raymond Chandler: “The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.”
⭐️Gail Godwin: “The characters I create are parts of myself and I send them on little missions to find out what I don’t know yet.”
⭐️Donald Maas: “The more complex you make your secondary characters, the more lifelike and involving your story will be.”
As a writer, these statements act as guiding principles when I create characters.
Too Many Men on the Ice
One thing my critique partners point out is that I write a lot of characters. Sometimes too many characters. And I name them, a cardinal sin according to some of the writing books I've read. I have good reasons for them, or I think I do. And I'm loathe to cut them out or combine them. . One thing I do is make a list, then see if there is any way to pare them back. Only occasionally does one get cut.
But having too many charcters is only one problem writers face
I'm More Important than You Thought
What happens when a minor character asks for a promotion? Or a secordary character tries to take centerstage?
When a minor character bursts into a scene, you have too choices—tone them down, or promote them. Don't think of it as a burden. It's an opportunity to make your story better. Here are some things to think about:
Can the character move the story forward?
Is the character an unexpected witness?
Is the character a minor antagonist for the main character?
Does the character send the main character in a fruitful new direction? Give false information that misleads the character?
Does the character replace one who disappeared or died? Or becomes a late story corpse? Or become a secondary character in another book?
I Want My Own Book!
Secondary characters already have a bigger role. But what happens when your readers demand more? In my Global Security Unlimited series, the secondary characters in one book will have their own book later. But that won't work for my Murder in the North Country books. A couple of possibilities are to give them short stories like I did with Lane Fairchild in "Leaving Cleveland," or create a spinoff.
The author is the decider. Some ask their readers if they have favorite side characters that they'd like to have their own story. Some write spinoffs. Some ignore the clamor altogether.
Whether you let them slide right in or cut them down to size, think carefully about characters your readers might fall in love with. And never let them push your main character out.