Character Development to The Extreme

frozen moment

This time I’ll address the critical questions in developing your MC, or the other central characters of your WIP. I’ve talked about character questionnaires before, but if you haven’t read my blog, you can check out this one: https://www.novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire#basic

Or: https://www.freelancewriting.com/creative-writing/questions-for-creating-character-development/

What you see when you read a book is the tip of the iceberg. A fraction of character development ends up in the final text. The more work you put into building your character, the more natural he/she is during dialogue, action, and reaction.

Most writers start the difficult task of character creation from the physical features:

  • The color of eyes, hair, and skin.
  • Age, sex
  • Voice
  • Body type
  • Hands
  • Facial expressions

Choosing who goes through the difficult path of your story is a major decision.

“Am I still on the path of truth? Have I found fair equivalents into which to transpose the habits, the professions, the relations of feelings? For an act has by no means the same meaning if it is performed by a rich or a poor man, by a bachelor or a father of six, by an old man or a young girl.”

Joseph Kessel, Army of Shadows.

When you meet a person for the first time, you pay attention to their physical features like hair and eye color. When you meet a love interest, you’re bound to notice eye color, but what if you’re applying for a job? Do you remember afterward what the person interviewing you looked like? I’d bet you didn’t take note of his eye color but you might recognize his voice, or mannerisms during the interview because you read his movements subliminally. You searched for clues: did he like you or did he hate your guts?

The situation

If you sit in the interrogation room and you face a powerful opponent who holds all the cards, what do you observe?

I see the body language of my opponent. I search for signs that he exaggerates what he knows. I’d wait for his hand to form a fist, in which case, I’d raise my arm to block a hit. Okay, the interrogation scenes in my books are bloodbaths, but your local sheriff might go easier on the suspect. Again, this depends on your worldbuilding.

Body language is essential

I cannot stress this one enough. I use the interrogation as an example because the power balance is unequal and offers the writer possibilities to bring out the worst and the best in people.

The body language depends on the character’s goals: does your hero have something to hide? What’s at stake? The fate of his comrades? If your MC is a professional soldier who received SERE training, he filters his reactions. If your heroine stands amidst her enemies, she might use different means to survive or impress her opponents. Her goal in the scene defines her responses.

Who is the attacker and who tries to block him? These positions cause our body language to change. Is your suspect a serial killer or a wrongly-accused ex-spouse? High- and low-power poses in the images below are just examples. The interpretation of body language is a science, and if you write a crime novel, studying this field pays.

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Source: https://blog.bufferapp.com/improve-my-body-language-secrets

The same unspoken language rises to the surface if two persons negotiate a deal in the middle of a bazaar, or if a husband and wife engage in an argument. What their mouths say, and what their bodies tell, are two different things. Body language is ancient—it predates speech. Our brains interpret these patterns instinctively, whether you like it or not.

In Retrospect

Your character wasn’t born ready. He learned a few tricks along the way and his family and friends had an effect on him. He belongs to society: defending the status quo or fighting to topple it. That’s why the questions about his past are essential. Character questionnaires will guide you to develop a history for your MC.

Examples of questions which dig deeper:

  • What are his biggest secrets?
  • How does he display affection?
  • How competitive is he?
  • What are his political views?
  • What will he stand up for?

You might never offer the reader a complete history,  but you’ll choose a few star moments for painful flashbacks or golden memories… bitter chalk of defeat which fills your heroine with anger at the right moment. Build a past, and use it.

Each person comes with a past and future: an arc of development. You can’t create believable literary characters without the dimension of time, the essence of change. We age. We might become different persons because of painful trauma. What we expect from the future says a lot about our personality.

The Action

The writer faces a terrible dilemma. You must fit so much into a single scene and remember your plot outline. Most of your troubles might not even survive into the final manuscript.

Tips for writing dialogue that connects your characters to their world:

  • Use background action to add tone and mood
  • Add movement to dialogue to keep the story moving
  • Use mid-dialogue actions for tense interruption
  • Reveal character relationships through movement and action
  • Add dramatic emphasis to characters’ emotions in a scene
  • Use movement, gesture and action to reveal personality

The Now Novel article is pure genius. Source: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/movement-action-in-dialogue/

The job is impossible, I know. I’ve shed tears on my keyboard because the puzzle refuses to decode. That’s why I turn to writer thesauruses:

Emotion-Thesaurus-2nd-Edition.jpg

https://www.amazon.com/Emotion-Thesaurus-Writers-Character-Expression/dp/1475004958

masterlists

https://www.amazon.com/MASTER-LISTS-WRITERS-Thesauruses-Character-ebook/dp/B016U2K20O

The scene and the character are inseparable. Otherwise, your character becomes an info dump upon entrance, and his presence remains shallow throughout the chain of events: the scenes.

I also advise you to write your characters bit by bit. Polishing through rewriting makes them perfect. What is a thin film, in the beginning, can evolve into a master portrait of a human being after the edits. The readers will love or hate your character. Both are equally desirable because you want to arouse an emotional response.

If you get stuck, take a look at an iconic character in your favorite author’s book. What traits catch your eye? Make a list.

The Art of Choosing

As you write a scene, you see every little detail with your mind’s eye. You notice the light reflecting from the heroine’s honey blonde hair, and you know she’s got blisters in her palm from wielding the massive sword. You feel the temptation to write every single detail into her movements, and the objects she uses, because you want to convey the movie which plays in your head.

But here comes the hard part. You should concentrate on significant action: on the parts which move your story forward and tell the reader what she needs to know. Remember to leave room for the reader’s imagination.

Trust your readers.

One of the most misunderstood rules among newbie writers is “Show, don’t tell.” Mastering that law is a basic lesson in writing, but you can’t show everything! Your book would stretch on forever as the plot would go nowhere. You must choose your battles. Picking what to tell is something you’ll learn only by writing and rewriting. Also, peer critique, beta-readers, and a skilled editor will help you get there. Separating the important stuff from useless junk is impossible if you sit in your hermit’s chamber alone.

The things which matter most to you might be the wrong ones! Hence the rule: “Kill your darlings.”

As you see, the theme of character development runs through the fabric of the book. Every essential element of storytelling has something to do with the character. Even the setting, which you might think is a standalone complex, must be shown through the eyes of the point-of-view character. If you show something the heroine couldn’t possibly observe, you break the spell of the POV.

Character Movements

When the character travels through the scenes, describing his movement is essential. When you’re on page 305 of your manuscript, you’ll feel the temptation to repeat the same key motions. Turn to the thesaurus for inspiration. Open your favorite book and write down the mannerisms of the characters amid different situations.

An excellent article by K. M. Weiland on character movements, with examples:

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/common-writing-mistakes-describing-character-movements/#

And remember:

“You’ll note that correctly describing character movements doesn’t necessarily mean you have to describe every single detail.”

—K.M. Weiland

 

Express Yourself- Finding The Elusive Writer’s Voice

Collection of masquerade masks hang on a home's wall

What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror? Wrinkles, the bags under your eyes and other flaws… or are you happy with your reflection because it shows the wisdom you have gathered with the mileage?

Maybe you want to be perceived through your work? You tap away on the keyboard,  send the manuscript to the publisher, and they take care of the rest while you write the opening line of your next bestseller in your dusty chamber.

I’d be happy with that.

Perhaps you love the internet and it loves you back. The top agent snatches you off the market because of the enormous following you’ve attracted in Social Media, and the rest is history.

Most writers- people- fall somewhere in between. You can hire someone to do publicity. Many learn the secrets of Indie-marketing through hard work. The public persona of a writer is a mask. You’ll find the intimate person between the pages of his/her books.

You On The Page

Writing a book is a massive endeavor which exhausts any creator. When the storylines run dry, and the tenth editing round tastes like shit, you must use your history to dig up fresh ideas. How does one pour himself on the pages of the book?

When you read the work of world-class writers, you hear a human voice which speaks to you. You sense the writer’s soul- the life which she led. Sometimes the tones are subtle, and you don’t understand where everything is coming from until you grab her autobiography. Lessons in World War molded the writer’s voice of Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Marguerite Duras. When you look at their work, it’s obvious.

The effort to separate your persona from your writing is futile. You’re working against yourself if you try to hide who you are. It makes no difference if you write a memoir (riveted with true scandals), or a future story unlike anything in the history of Sci-Fi. When you are serious about the art of literature, you must develop a unique writer’s voice.

“The writer’s voice is not something you can measure, it’s subjective. But, even so, possible to be defined and identified.”

The literary agent, Rachel Gardner, defines the writer’s voice: “Your writer’s voice is the expression of YOU on the page.”

Your voice:

  • should reflect you: what you feel and believe; what moves you.
  • The tone in your writing is the most important element of your voice.
  • Your voice is the rhythm that prints the pace of the text.
  • You learn to be a better writer, you change genres, but whatever you write, your voice is always a central element.

Source: https://writingcooperative.com/the-writers-voice-what-is-and-how-to-find-yours-ed82f1884984

The voice is still elusive despite all the explaining. The voice is like Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. It’s something you’ll learn by writing several books and short stories and blogs. You recognize the voice of Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. It’s the common denominator of a career.

Common Elements Vs. Your Voice

Mastering the art of literature demands that you use the excellent writer’s toolset: Consistent Point of View, Showing Not Telling, and answering the Spiritual Question, in the end- to provide a few examples. If you don’t abide by the rules, the reader gets thrown out of your book.

How do you characterize your hero/heroine? Remember, what moves you is an essential part of the writer’s voice. Some main characters appeal to you more than the others.

  1. The willing hero- James Bond
  2. The unwilling hero- Frodo Baggins
  3. The tragic hero- Oedipus
  4. The classical hero- Wonder Woman
  5. The epic hero- Beowulf
  6. The antihero- Tony Soprano (one of my all-time favorites)

Source: https://nybookeditors.com/2018/03/6-types-of-heroes-you-need-in-your-story/

What is your book’s plot type? Adrienne Lafrance describes archetypal plot arcs as ‘core types of narratives based on what happens to the protagonist.’

The six core types are:

  1. Rags to riches (a complete rise)
  2. Riches to rags (a fall)
  3. Man in a hole (fall, then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise, then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise, then fall, then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall, then rise, then fall)

Source: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/understanding-storytelling-arc/

Again, your choice describes you as a person and writer.

The Message

I’m pro-message when it comes to writing books. My favorite thesis as a dystopian writer is: “Humanity will never learn,” preferably pronounced with the deep voice of Morgan Freeman echoing into the void. Why? It has something to do with being me. Maybe my life experiences molded a cynical worst-case personality, or I just fell in love with dystopian literature as a fourteen-year-old. Go figure, but I’ve woven myself into the book I’m writing.

My second book will be a supernatural spy thriller. War and sacrifice shall continue to entice me. That’s my writer’s voice going through the loops of natural evolution.

My suggestions for nurturing the elusive ghost of the writer’s voice:

  • Write about things which excite or scare you.
  • Convey a message through your theme.
  • Arouse awareness of injustice.
  • Reveal your moral beliefs.
  • Pour yourself into the characters.
  • Observe the character traits of people you know.
  • Use your life experiences, hobbies and professional knowledge to build the setting and plot.
  • Visit places similar to the environment of your book. Smell, observe, feel.
  • Write what you’d love to read.

 

Researching Your Book

Medieval Woman with the Finger on the Lips Holding a Lamp

We, the writers, come up with imaginary worlds of the future. We also weave intricate plots which take place in ancient Rome or in the silk-clad Victorian England. We describe the bloody battlefields of the US Civil War and the chaos of the French Revolution. Heads roll and limbs must be amputated.

Each period in history offers a fascinating set of dresses, customs, and geographical variation. Google Maps is an excellent tool if you write about a faraway land, but you need a time machine to visit the battle of Gaines’ Mill.

To set your novel in The US Civil War, you must master the way of speech during the era and you must know how to reload the weaponry and… The list is long.  When you dip into the deep well of history, a new danger arises. You’ll be tempted to infodump because you’ve become quite the expert! You know each footstep the famous general took in the battle of Gaines’ Mill, but:

“The historical novels I admire inhabit their worlds so fully that as a reader I feel I’m breathing the air of that distant place or time. This has less to do with historical detail than with a freshness of language, tone, and incident that makes the concerns of the characters so recognizably human that they feel almost contemporary. The ability to transport us into different minds is a hallmark of good literature generally; the bar is set even higher when a story’s setting is truly foreign. Lots of period detail does not necessarily make a compelling story; many of my favorites in this list are short distillations that transport us poetically to another world.”

Source: https://www.publishersweekly.com/

The secret is the delicate balance between solid facts and skillful fiction. The right amount of authenticity depends on the genre and the reader. You might have to rewrite multiple times to get into fabulous world-building.

Choose your battle

The readers who are inclined to buy your book are interested in the:

  • Theme
  • Era
  • Setting
  • Characters
  • Or plot of your book.

Or they just like the cover image, or find out about you from Amazon or blogs or…

Chances are that your reader knows something about the world of your book.  If the reader notices that you got the weapons or the family background of the hero wrong, you lose their trust.

Bang!

That’s the sound your book makes when it hits the floor and shall never be picked up again.

The secret is choosing your battles. Master the rules and you can bend them. There’s no harm in removing historical details as you go along and decide that each bit isn’t necessary for the drama. But don’t make a mistake with the essential stuff! Your hero/heroine should be an exceptional character, but relatable.

For example, a Victorian woman’s place was in the home: being a well-behaved mistress of the house and giving birth to babies- preferably burly sons. Dracula is a British-American television series, a reimagining of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The character of Mina is cast as a doctor. The education of women in medicine was a new idea in the Victorian era and the source of joking. It wasn’t impossible though. See, research pays. A female doctor isn’t against the rules of Victorian worldbuilding, but a pioneer whose profession gives you a chance to write conflict.

The Ideal Reader

Surely you have imagined him or her: the person who enjoys your book so much that she tells all her friends about you? I’m going to use simple stereotypes now. Don’t be offended.

If your ideal reader is a single woman in her twenties; she lives in the big city and wolfs down romantic & historical literature, chances are that she expects romance and adventure when she picks up your book. This buyer is willing to accept that you bend the borders of social class. The charming baron blazing down the hillside riding his white stallion to grab the peasant girl is plausible if you’re within the genre expectations. If the ideal reader is a fifty-something naval veteran, you’d better get the military details of the battle of Potomac right.

It’s entirely possible that your audience ranges from ages 20 to 65 and represents both female and male readers, but something binds together the people who would enjoy your book: the features of the ideal reader connect them.

The Dust of History

Chances are that you hated the dry dust of history in school. Let go of that thought. Finding out about history will cause your writing to soar with new ideas. You don’t have to come up with everything: the information is already there for you to grab.

“If you’re writing non-fiction, research will most likely be the basis of your book. For fiction, it can provide ideas on which to build your characters and plot.”

Source: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2017/01/18/research-a-novel/

I like to base my characters, especially the villain, on somebody who existed. Historical figures are great baselines for fictional characters. Reading a memoir will give you insight into the thought models, religions and aspirations which people had during that era.

“Books are made out of books” – Cormac McCarthy

Read other people’s books. Find out how they’ve come up with the right balance between fact and fiction.

But I Write About The Future

You might think that you’re safe from researching history because your setting is imaginary and the plot takes place in the future.

The fictional future of mankind is:

  • The gleaming steel world manned by people dressed in sterile white. Here, the most deadly weapon is science.
  • Or the grim post-apocalyptic desert with wandering tribes and murderous warlords. Here, the most deadly weapon in the hand of the new caveman is an old rifle or an ax.

Both of them have their foundation in historical eras. When the race to the moon was on during the Cold War, writers grabbed the theme of alien invasions and space wars. When the threat of the nuclear holocaust became evident to the masses, the writers offered visions of radiation-ridden wastelands roamed by a handful of smart and resilient survivors. If I were to write the latter version, I’d study the dark Middle Ages.

Science Fiction experienced a boom during the decades of rebuilding and technological optimism after WWII. We’d fill Mars with colonies and abandon the earth before the doomsday clock ticked into 2000 AD. Of course, we didn’t. We stayed pretty much the same but we enjoy 3D movies depicting that very theme!

History is inevitably linked to the future.

The reader will find the future more plausible when it derives from the politics of today

We relate to something we witness with our own eyes. Fears of today form the future monsters. Think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She wrote the book in 1985, but the misogynistic Gilead state is plausible to us because of the features in US politics.

To envision the worst case scenario is human nature.

We littered the earth with trash and we invented digital devices, but humanity remained the same. We feel empathy for the future character who could be us.

Alternate History Fiction

A whole subdivision of dystopian literature is Alternate History. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle is a brilliant example. C. J . Sansom represents the new wave of alternate history fiction with his Dominion (one of my favorite books).

The plots of C. J. Sansom’s other novels take place during Tudor times. Sansom is a researcher of history and his books are excellent entertainment.

Even if you don’t want to be the dusty hermit, Google a few search terms. Read, read and read. The strange world of your next book starts to grow and breathe around you. Once, there was a time when writers had to drag themselves to the library to study. Today, we just open a laptop or a mobile phone. Who said that humanity couldn’t evolve?

Hashtags: #history #books #writing #writingadvice #howtowrite #research #future #novel #fiction #dystopian #utopian #historical #adventure

Give Your Characters Hell- A Crash-course in World Building

Screaming beauty Model with American Indian Makeup

The world of my first book is dystopian, as some of you might know. In Sci-Fi and post-apocalyptic literature, world-building must start from page one. The same goes with historical fiction, but I continue with the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.”

An excellent example of world-building from page one without going into excess detail and losing the journey of the Main Character. You want the occasional browser of Amazon or the lunch-time walker who strands into the local bookstore to get on with the reading, don’t you? When you read the first chapter of this classic book, you know what you get into.

You must let the reader know what he is buying.

I’m sure you have read your share of writing advice on the beginning aka the Inciting Incident. I know I have.

“The inciting incident is an episode, plot point or event that hooks the reader into the story. This particular moment is when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story.”

Source: www.nownovel.com

You’ll start your book in the middle of the action, and you’ll yank the Main Character out of his daily life. Someone or something drags the hero into dangerous territory, and you’ll give the MC hell to raise the stakes. You make his goal crystal clear to the anonymous reader who comes from a variety of backgrounds.

By doing this, you are world-building.

You describe the thunder outside the MC’s window when fate comes knocking on his door dressed as Gandalf The Grey or explosions or… You tell us what kind of bedsheets the heroine casts aside to answer the call of duty. When she gets dressed and fetches her weapons, you give us laser guns or the bow and arrow of Katniss Everdeen.

If you’re writing about basically anything which is alien to the person who buys your book- hunting or lace weaving – you need to immerse him/her into your world. You use the five senses which give us the most cited rule in the history of fiction, from the campfire stories of the hunter-gatherers to the time of widespread Indie-publishing:

Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description.”

Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell

What the MC:

  • Tastes
  • Sees
  • Touches
  • Smells
  • Hears

The five senses immerse the reader into your book’s setting. Scientific studies of human senses go far out. If you’re interested in the over fifty ways of sensing, check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense

My personal favorites are the sense of your own body position and pressure.

If you write historical fiction, you do a ton of research to give the accurate details of the world around the one doing the sensing.

World-building and exposition

Google overflows with checklists on world-building. I suggest you use one because it functions as a framework while you expose the imaginary setting.

Remember, an exhibition of the setting mustn’t become an info dump of backstory!

World-building is a tough art. Be stealth and embed the environment into everything the Main Character does. You can use supporting characters to bring forth a piece of history. In my opinion, the only thing that can seriously deal with the problems of effective world-building is REWRITING.

grandma rewriting

I use an Excel sheet for Scene Tracking. World- building has a column of its own which lists the exposition assigned to that particular scene. I keep track of what I’ve already exposed.  And I’ve told all the significant sensory bits when I get to the ending.

Example: http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/2013/10/track-your-scenes-on-scene-tracker.html

Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy in world building

Here we dive into character psychology again. When you read the list of needs below, remember to make the fury of hell rain down on your MC. Think of hardship, battle, desperation- you need to build conflict which is the core of each great story.

Without conflict, you have only exposition and no story.

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.”

Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

A list of needs according to Maslow:

  • Physical demands: where does your MC acquire food or water? Who manufactures/sells it and what does he want? The hard-core motivation of satisfying one’s bodily needs is a great way to expose your world. Think of the role of gasoline in Mad Max. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Max
  • Safety needs: How to find safety from the elements? Who can offer security among numbers and what’s the price?
  • Belongingness needs: family, friends, clan and culture. This need offers you a rich possibility of describing the rules of birth, marriage, and death. How to raise kids during a specific era? Belongingness can tell the reader so much about the society the MC lives in.
  • Esteem needs: What the MC sees when she catches her own reflection while passing a shop window? How far up the ladder of the hierarchy is the pauper or the princess? This need offers the writer a beautiful opportunity for character development.
  • Cognitive needs: Education, knowledge, being right or wrong. This need addresses the goal of the MC.
  • Aesthetic needs: What people consider beautiful or relaxing? No matter how scorched the post-apocalyptic landscape is, people find aesthetically pleasing things. Music, fashion, booze… Does the MC manufacture some objects herself? The things which please her tell a story. A gunsmith or a soldier reveres his weapon, and a princess loves her silk.
  • Self-actualization: character ARC, change in the person between the beginning and end.
  • Transcendence: Religion, beliefs, mysticism. Does your MC find peace in the end? Remember to develop your character ARC.

“Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.” Find out more here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

maslow_pyramid.jpg

This is the framework I use to create dystopian world twenty-five years after the nuclear war. You must weave world-building into everything you put in your book. The setting isn’t a separate entity.

Good luck!

My Website: www.rebeckajager.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rebeckajagerwriter/

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Twitter: https://twitter.com/@JagerWriter

The Sidekick – The Shadow or The Flame?

Young attractive Witch walking on the bridge in heavy black smoke.

When I hear the word sidekick, the image of Batman’s Robin conjures. Who could forget the guy wearing the green pantyhose? The word is forever linked with the lesser one of the power duo.

The Urban Dictionary defines a sidekick:

“A friend/associate of a more popular, charismatic person. The sidekick gains most of his/her acclaim from merely being connected so closely to the more powerful acquaintance.”

It’s easy to write a sidekick who follows the heroine like a shadow. Sometimes the shadow is long, and sometimes it travels ahead of her, but shadows rarely mean anything except symbolism.

And then an interesting secondary character flows out of your pen like lightning. This person keeps you awake at night and leads the story into unknown depths as a bright flame.

The safest route to prevent the sidekick from stealing the spotlight, is to make her/him inferior to the heroine/hero but where’s the drama in that?

Someone to save the day

If you’re like me, you write a villain who radiates raw power. He keeps kicking the hero’s ass, and you need someone to help defeat him. My recommendation is to make the villain stronger than the MC because this way you build pressure and suspense! You drive the plot forward with bloody desperation.

The sidekick can come to the MC’s aid at the darkest hour: when the villain is about to strike a spear into the hero’s heart.

The sidekick is abler than the hero under unusual circumstances:

  • The hero is wounded and unable to defend himself
  • The hero is under a spell or doesn’t sense the approaching death
  • The secondary character is the only one around and must rise to save the day
  • The villain’s BFF changes sides and become one of the good guys to keep the hero safe. He has the element of surprise on his side.
  • The sidekick betrays the hero and reveals that he has been working for the evil one the whole time. You can feel the salt stinging on that wound for a long time. This twist forces you to prolong the final battle- which is a good thing. Keep postponing the reader’s satisfaction.

And so on. I’m sure you have seen movies which utilize a lesser character to bring the plot into a grand finale via roundabouts.

Just Different

The sidekick can be a person who contrasts the hero, like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson. Watson is a man of medicine with practical wits, and a war hero, who reflects the intellectual superiority of Sherlock Holmes. Where Holmes is in danger, Watson comes to the rescue. Where Holmes is at loss, Watson is confident because he is different.

Sometimes the secondary character, which you intended as a vessel for plot advancement, steals the readers’ attention. That’s what happened to Liva Löwe in my book The unholy Warrior. She’s the one my beta readers found most attractive because they can relate to her.

The key to the reader’s heart is arousing empathy. Keep your sidekicks relatable!

Sometimes the heroine can appear too strong and hardheaded, which is fine for the MC. But the presence of a gentler person who finds her courage when all else crumbles can have an earth-shaking effect on the reader.

In my book The Unholy Warrior, the heroine Rebane Nordstrom thinks she’s invincible, and the young German girl she saved is a mere nuisance to be dragged around:

“Each twig crackled under Liva’s foot and the fir trees slapped her with prickling branches. The willows grabbed the young woman’s shirt and her hair got tangled in the thorny bushes. The forest forbade Liva’s presence. Rebane advanced too fast for her to keep up.

“Rebane, wait!” she shouted when her friend’s leaf green camouflage merged with the shade of the grove.

Rebane turned around and her expression didn’t hide her frustration:  “You’re noisy like the running elk. The elk doesn’t care because she’s big. Everything cedes in front of her but you’re not the fucking elk, and nothing here fears you,” Rebane hissed and spat on the moss.

“I’m sorry. Can’t you see that I’m trying?”

“And be sure to step where I step as we cut through the swamp. The sacrificial grove is dangerous. It will swallow you if you stray one inch. I’d be unhappy to lose you, my friend.”

Liva’s eyes filled with tears. The words she tried to form stuck on her lips. Rebane took a firm hold on her smooth white hand and Liva squeezed her arm like she was about to drown.

“Thank you for saving my life,” Liva said but the wind which whispered among the trees scattered her voice.

****

At this stage, Liva is weaker than Rebane who is a trained soldier and a master survivalist. The women have just crossed paths, and I take my time to reveal Liva’s unique qualities. She has survived kidnapping and slave traders, but with a different approach than Rebane who shoots first and asks questions later. Liva is more than meets the eye. She is in touch with the divine healing power. Omens and visions give her understanding of what plagues Rebane. Mother Nature is a dominant bitch and she has a significant role in my book. Liva Löwe is an adapter: she molds her being to fit the surroundings.

Blurring lines

Is Julia a sidekick of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984? Yes and no. A love interest can be a sidekick. Winston and Julia rebel together.

Boy-boy and girl-girl pairs are abundant in literature and movies. If the heroine and the sidekick represent different sexes, you can write a sub-plot of budding love. One-sided affection raises the stakes a notch by introducing another level of conflicting interests. A disgruntled lover is a fertile ground for the enemy to grow resentment towards the hero.

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Suzanna Hamilton as Julia in the Film 1984, MGM 1985.

But I see Julia as the last nail on Winston’s coffin. From the introduction of Julia, Orwell predicts the main character’s doom. To make the aide betray the hero is a great idea: the knife twists deep inside the gaping wound. In fact, Winston and Julia betray each other at the face of an invincible enemy: the system.

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Barbara Bach as Major Anya Amasova in Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 Eon Productions).   

The representatives of the enemy can become sidekicks for the hero. Just one kiss from the deadly 007 and poof! A battle-hardened communist assassin becomes the Playboy bunny because sex makes her see the system of Motherland as evil.

Okay, I over-simplify.

I’m not complaining because Ian Fleming’s James Bond is excellent entertainment. The secondary character can exist as a borderline case through the entire Bond movie.

We know where Major Amasova’s loyalties lie when we see the ending of The Spy Who Loved Me.