Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bringing Secondary Characters to Life

In the midst of trying to solve a writing problem in my fiction, I tend to “go to the literature,” to quote Joan Didion. I used to do this when I was a far less confident writer though with mixed results, since I wasn’t always certain about what I was looking for. Presently I’m looking for ways of bringing a secondary character to life in my first person point of view novel.

After reading the first three chapters of a draft of this novel, my writing group honed in on the character of my protagonist’s wife. “We need more dialogue,” they resoundingly agreed. “We need to see her.” Something in my presentation of this character made her feel unformed to them.

Of the three or four books I turned to, one example that jumped out of a first person narrative showing a secondary character with some specificity was found in Matthew Klamm’s one and only book Sam the Cat and Other Stories, which I’d forgotten, or just put into the recesses of a cobwebbed memory. Right away I recalled Klamm’s deft handling of bringing a secondary character to life, which feels somewhat sleight of hand.

Klamm’s language is frank, blunt and naked. His dialogue is even more revealing. Yet it tends toward turning the narrator, typically first person, into something of a buffoon and a lumpish failure, what was once called, I believe, a milquetoast. This seems in the service of conveying his women (yes, plural) of the type a la Esquire magazine’s self-congratulating feature “Women We Love.” As if no such woman has any flaws worth noting, or these flaws are merely charming, so enraptured are they by her beauty. These effects are often achieved with dialogue, of course. Klamm’s writing excels in an easygoing talking style, as of a good friend telling you intimate details over a pint. This style might be used to make an unsympathetic narrator more sympathetic. Does it matter that these secondary characters are rather typecast? Probably. As successful as this is, I became suspicious that Klamm’s stories appeal to a specific demographic that I might be on the outs with. This might be half the problem with my own first person narrative--my readers are not entirely in synch with the narrator.

Thus I thought, rather than merely bringing in additional characters more to life with more dialogue, I would need to do a lot more to appeal to the demographic that isn’t agreeable with my first person character. But I also began to wonder about the ready advice, “Use more dialogue.”

Why am I so willing to conclude that dialogue is an easy way--or as it’s also frequently thought of--the main way, to bring a character to life? I suspect the idea is that in first person, dialogue is an opportunity to not have your narrator endlessly talking, after pages and pages. Dialogue can seem live, and in this way it brings whatever character is talking to life. I don’t disagree with this assessment. But I believe you can fall into these soft traps of a ready made solution without figuring out if it actually works.

Yet, even after writing several pages of more dialogue centric scenes in my novel, I didn’t necessarily feel any closer to bringing the protagonist’s wife to life.

What I recognized was that I needed now to approach this in a more organic way. I begin to ask questions: what am I trying to convey exactly? The problem for the narrator is that, after returning from a mountain climb, he’s become permanently disabled; in light of this, his wife has returned to help him after a separation. That specific plot point aside, I am trying to convey multiple problems in this novel, and this is just one facet.

Certainly dialogue will carry emotion and feelings, here. Because I need to have the narrator explain some of his situation, I don’t believe it is unexpected--or really wrong--to have him offer his interpretation of events--this is the purview of first person, after all.

With a novel, it is normal to have to juggle multiple objectives. This story with the wife is only a subplot within the larger narrative. The main narrative might be summarized as a man tries to understand his life after confronting a life altering injury. I don’t think every character has to have a curriculum vitae and a diagnostic workup. In fact, with first person, it might even be expected that secondary characters get short shrift, and that they may be presented with some degree of bias. I can’t make them full fledged in the 250 pages I have for the novel. I think my approach has been to give the secondary characters enough material to function in service of the larger plot.

This is the kind of problem I expect from handing out a first draft of a novel. The reading group’s bias comes in because they are not seeing the whole picture. Granted, it’s a delicate dance between keeping the reader interested and not making them despise a potentially unsympathetic narrator. As much as I want to hold my argument up as explanation, the reality is that anyone else who reads the novel might come to a similar conclusion. I discussed this attempt to appeal to everyone in the following blog post Cheese Pizza Effect.

Beyond these issues, I believe there is more at work here: the wife is thought to be two dimensional, or flat, as they say; god forbid that I should portray such a character--such an important character--as flat. And this is when I realized: this character is the one my writing group is most predisposed to. They are reacting to my narrator as I am to Matthew Klamm’s. The chorus becomes, “Well, nobody wants to read about them,” or, “The narrator needs to be more sympathetic.” I get their point, but I also think there is a place for a narrator who is occasionally reprehensible.

One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years of writing and revising is knowing how to pick and choose advice. When the tenor of this criticism is too strong, as I feel was the case with my group, I realize I have hit a nerve. I take this advice cautiously, usually. The group is getting a firsthand impression without having read the full novel. Do I try to make it more conducive to their expectations, knowing this might be the way an agent will read it, or do I stick to my resolve and not lose sight of my goals for the narrative? I recognize why readers might be reacting so vehemently to the narrator, and I will consider their suggestions, but it’s not the secondary character’s story, after all. 

Interested in reading more about the conundrums of writing fiction? Check out an earlier post: On having to explain one's work (or that dumbing down logic).


  1. I know nothing about your story, so my comment is probably not worth the pixels in which it's conveyed. Nevertheless. Have you ever thought about giving the wife her one section? Like, e.g., John Fowles in The Collector.

    For a look at a group of really good books by some first rank writers that tackle this issue (1st Person, Unreliable, Unlikable Protagonist), may I suggest an early blog post of mine?

    [By the way, some really good news about my own book. Pitched to both an editor and an agent & they seem very interested. Fingers crossed!]

  2. Giving the wife a chapter could be a possibility. However, I think because I have maintained first person throughout, I'd have to try to convey her, still, from the first person point of view (of the main character).

    I'll check out your post, eagerly. (I did read that Peter Carey novel, by the way, thirteen years ago.)

    Great news on your book. Keep me posted!