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About Writing Right: The Blog


A fairly thoughtful writer asked the other day when it's necessary to develop a second character in a novel. Here's what I said.

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Good question. Complex answer. Let's see if I can nail it for you.


All novels require at least "a" well-developed secondary character. And sometimes several. That's because all novels have conflict. Your protagonist doesn't float through life without a care, or it wouldn't be much of a story. As a protagonist, he or she needs full development so that the reader will empathize with him and want to learn more—including what happens to him in the end.


The same is true for the antagonist. The reader has to find out enough about him to want to continue reading, to try to figure out what motivates him, to feel some sort of empathy toward him, as rotten as he may appear to be. Readers thirst for the knowledge of what motivates various characters to act. As an author, you have to provide that knowledge for them without revealing too much.


One of the largest failings of novelists, both established and newbies, is to paint their antagonists with the broad brush of negativity. He's harmful because he's pure evil. He eats, sleeps, and drinks evil. He worships the devil. He reeks of bad breath and alcohol. After all, we want the reader to know who the good guy is versus who the bad guy is, don't we?


Of course we do. But when you stop to think about some of the worst people in life—including in your own life—you realize that few of them are "pure evil." Even the worst of the lot have had some endearing features about them, although they may have strayed from them over the years. They're kind to animals. They survived serious childhood abuse. They want to do well but keep falling off the Dudley Dooright bandwagon. They're dying from some unknown disease. They're loyal to their friends. When a writer fails to paint some positivity into an antagonist, he creates a one-sided creature known as a cardboard character. And in a novel, cardboard characters are throwaway characters. The reader sees early on that there's nothing to learn about them; they are mere placeholders or facilitators of someone else's actions; so, why devote any time thinking about them? See where I'm going with this?


Now, lightweight stories—the simple ones without earth-shattering back stories and involved development—can get by with only one or two additional developed characters. The more complex the story, however, the more additional characters will require development. Think Gone with the Wind. (You haven't? Shame on you!) Scarlett O'Hara wouldn't be very interesting if you didn't know about and care for some of the people whose lives she touched—and occasionally ruined. Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, Melanie Hamilton. The list goes on and runs deep.


The same is true for Moby Dick. (You haven't? Shame on you!) Captain Ahab wouldn't be much of a foil for the protagonist, Ishmael, or for the mysterious islander Queequeg (along with half a dozen others) if the characters weren't well developed enough to tell us what we should like about them, what makes them tick., and why we should care.


Now, here comes the spoiler: I warn you, however, not to spend too much time and real estate developing lesser characters who really don't go anywhere in the story, don't add anything to the plot, and don't really matter. Those are cardboard characters, and they should be. Short of failing to develop a character who needs development, over-developing a character who doesn't is just as bad. Over-development leads the reader to become resentful of the time he's invested (i.e., wasted) in that character.


In the end, character development is like walking a thin line. Do it properly, and you'll have a winning book on your hands. Fail, and you'll have a dud. That's only one of the things that makes writing a really good novel one of the most difficult tasks on earth.

In editing the novel, The Mynah's Call by Paula Favage, I was looking at a book with a well-developed female protagonist, a sweeping saga filled with danger and adventure, and little else. By identifying six or seven additional important characters in the book, I was able to advise the author on who to develop more fully and who to leave alone. The result is a remarkably moving, touching, and memorable story of life and love on the rugged Afghan plains and in the towering Hindu Kush mountains that is a genuine joy to read.


So, that's the true-life skinny on character development for now. Any additional questions, feel free to contact me through my Website, and I'll be happy to provide the answers. Being in this business we call writing has taught me a few things over the past half century. I look forward to sharing some of them with you. In the meantime ...


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new e-Book series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. His blogs appear on his Website at www.djherda.org. You can also check out his columns, "The Author-Ethicist" and "Fury and the Beast," at Substack. They're free; they're entertaining; they're informative, and they run weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!) 

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