Wednesday, November 7, 2012

TTYU Retro: Secondary characters can add dimension and tension

Sometimes I come into a scene that I've really been looking forward to, and then I discover that it's not really popping the way I want it to. This happened to me as I was writing For Love, For Power with a scene where my protagonist, Tagaret, is reunited with his best friend Reyn after they've both been deathly ill. Honestly, I really had been looking forward to the scene - in part because I wondered what would come out of it, whether they would be closer as a result of their ordeal, or further apart. But when I got there and started writing it, it started feeling like some generic scene of reunion.

Generic is not allowed in my book.

It was at that point that I realized I hadn't been thinking through the surrounding context enough. By that I mean that it's always valuable to consider not only the situation at hand (in this case the reunion), but what surrounds it. It can sometimes be easy to think only about our point-of-view protagonist, and not so much of the others he or she interacts with. In my case, I hadn't really thought through how Reyn would be feeling, and what role would be played by the fact that a mutual friend of theirs contracted the same illness and died of it.

So I came up with two ideas that completely change the feel of the conversation:

1. Reyn lives without either of his parents (he's held back by law from accompanying them where they are working now), and has realized that he doesn't want to die without seeing them again. He has decided that as soon as the law allows, he will move to their city to live with them. This changes the conversation significantly, because instead of "wow, we're together again and we're both alive" all of a sudden it was "wow, we're both alive but you should know I'm going to skip town as soon as I can." The tension level is going to go way up as a result of this, and tension is generally good for story drive.

2. Reyn isn't just going to be thinking he needs to leave town, but he's going to be telling Tagaret (as opposed to thinking it but not telling him) in part because he's feeling survivor guilt. He feels terrible that their mutual friend has died and isn't sure that he deserves to be alive and part of this friendship when their friend cannot be. This gives him an added layer of motivation, and gives the conversation somewhere far more interesting to go when Tagaret gets upset about Reyn's declarations that he wants to leave.

Lucky for me, this also fits beautifully with the next piece of the chapter where they interact with the one friend of theirs who was untouched by the disease - I now have a lot of great ideas about both Reyn and Tagaret, their psychological states and how they'll feel about seeing their friend who got lucky and didn't have to suffer.

What does this mean for you?

Well, it means that if you find yourself entering a piece of interaction between characters, and it doesn't seem to have as much punch as it could, try reversing your point of view for a while. See if the non-POV character doesn't have something really interesting on his or her mind that could take the whole interaction in a different, more fruitful direction. Not only will it help to raise tension locally, but if you take it seriously (i.e. don't just stick it in for one scene and then forget about it later), it can make your secondary character much more three-dimensional and interesting. It will also combat that feeling that readers sometimes get, that they are listening to a conversation that is "getting stuff done" for the author but not really progressing with natural realism.

This change that I made did not change any major plot points, but it change the whole feel of the story going forward, and made Tagaret's motivations far more interesting and subtle as he headed into the rest of the "stuff he had to do." So as you work, don't just make the conversation go the way it has to to get the plot from point A to point B. Think of the hidden context, and do more.

It's something to think about.

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