Today we have a guest so everybody be on your best behavior! Welcome Matthew Bryant and thanks for joining us at All Things Writing!
You know that guy that put a dress on a mop, a tied a ribbon in its hair and then proceeded to introduce it to people as his date at prom? No? That’s because nobody outside of network television is that stupid. This doesn’t even count as humor in a sitcom, it’s just a sad appeal for laughs.
But how many times have you seen this in the literary world? Sure the antagonist and protagonist have some basis of a personality, maybe there’s a foil or two thrown in, but everybody else seems like a cardboard cut-out with crudely drawn scowls or smiles. This could just as easily slide by the casual reader who’s been skimming your book anyway, but if you expect your audience to hang on your every word, you’d better make every word count. How do you do this? By fleshing out as you go.
I’ve probably stumbled across at least two dozen different iterations of the ’20 questions to ask your protagonist’. Here’s the problem with that, you’re not speed-dating… you’re not interviewing some schmuck for an unpaid internship… you’re creating life. In fact, the first question you should be asking is for you: “What makes this person different?”
I hope you’re beginning to get the idea of the types of questions you should be asking, but for those who desperately cling to lists, I’ll throw out some examples:
· What do you do to unwind after a long day?
· Would you rather attend a party with lots of people, or a smaller gathering with a few close friends?
· Is your next car going to be a motorcycle, sedan, minivan, suv, etc…
· You just got stood up at the movies, what do you do?
· Can you initiate conversation in a room full of strangers?
· Where would you sit in the classroom? (examples could be front, back, middle, by the window, by the hot girl/guy, by my friends, etc…)
· How hard is it to wake you up? How many hours of sleep do you typically get?
· Are you happy with your job? Do you get along with your boss? With your coworkers? With clients?
· What would your next job be?
· Where do you want to go when you retire?
· Where would you go locally for a vacation? Internationally?
· How do you take your coffee?
Now for the mop. Anybody that enters the story, even if it’s just the guy driving the cab or working the desk at the motel, has a story of their own. Do you need to know the story? Absolutely not. Do you need to let the reader know their story? Not unless you’re Stephen King. So what are you getting at? Emotions my friend, emotions. If you want more than a cardboard cut-out, you can ask any character that saunters onto the page one simple question. “Hey, how’s your day going?”
I made this mistake once at a bar, simply making small-talk to the guy standing next to me as I was waiting for my pitcher to fill up. Turns out the guy was having an absolutely awful day – to the point that I ended up sharing the pitcher with him instead of my friends waiting across the room, only to drive him out to another party across town while devising a plan to save his relationship with a very upset girlfriend.
They actually got married six months ago, just in case you like happy endings. What was I talking about again? Oh right, answering the question. The point is, anybody can be having a day. Is it good or is it bad? Is it just another day? Why so? Answer this question and you’ve established a primary motive for a secondary character. Maybe they’re suspicious because somebody stiffed them earlier. Maybe they’re sleepy because they’re on a second shift. It could be that your protagonist reminds them of their cousin who died two years ago and they can’t stop staring. Just those three examples have already added a bit of intrigue to the people in question, haven’t they? Go on… admit it… you’re a bit curious now.
And once again, the reader doesn’t need to know the motive. They may NEVER know the motive, though you should totally watch out for red herrings. If nothing else, you’ve got a little sauce to stir around the dialogue, spice it up a bit. Maybe that non-essential character will come back later in the story when you least expect it. It will certainly keep the readers hunched over your book with fingers already itching for the next page.
Matthew Bryant is a writer and artist from Dallas, Texas as well as a member of the Greater Fort Worth Writer's group. For more tips on writing or examples of his work, check out his page at http://MatthewBryant.blogspot.com.