is a multi-published author living in sunny central Florida with her husband, Tony, a pastor. They have two ornery pets. She is a graduate of Ohio State University and a huge Buckeyes football fan. Rachel serves the writing community as a member of the Advisory Board of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW).
Brainstorming & Up the Tension
Last year while visiting with Ane Mulligan
, we brainstormed her work-in-progress.
Her story centered around two women and a wonderful supporting cast.
As we discussed one of the main characters, I asked Ane, “Tell me about her husband? What’s his issue?”
“Oh, well, he really doesn’t have one.”
“Give him a problem. All characters need a problem.”
Ane took my advice, gave the husband a problem and it added depth to the heroine’s story.
It sounds kind of simple to say, “All characters need a problem,” but it’s so easy to forget.
While writing The Sweet By and By
with country artist Sara Evans
, I created a secondary character, Lillabeth, who worked in the protagonist, Jade’s, vintage shop.
Initially the teen was to be a sounding board, someone Jade could talk to and tell her story. Lillabeth was cute and sweet, but kind of boring.
My editor asked me to give Lillabeth an issue to deal with⎯ a secret, a want, a problem.
As I worked out her story, it hit me. Every character has a problem.
Here’s how it changed my story. Lillabeth went from a lively, basketball playing teen who came to work on time and empathized with Jade to a worried young woman who quit the basketball team and asked Jade to let her work as much as possible. Money became a part of Lillabeth’s dialog whenever she was on the page.
Why? She’d wrecked her friend’s car and didn’t want her parents to know. She needed money to pay for the repairs.
Not a big issue right? Wouldn’t knock the literary world on it’s ear, but it did change the way my secondary character filled the page.
She was more interesting and impacting to my heroine. After awhile, Jade confronted her and learned the truth.
This problem rounded out the story and added a texture that made the story more interesting and fun to read.
Writing Lillabeth’s scenes and dialog became more engaging to me.
Take a step back from your work. Do you have secondary characters with no goal other than round out the protagonist life?
Even a receptionist at your hero’s office can have a problem. Every morning he walks in the lobby and greets Betty. Great if all she says to him is “Hello, have a nice day.”
But what if Betty quits greeting him with any life in her voice? What if her roots are growing out in her hair. Does he notice she’s lost a lot of weight? Or gained weight? Has she gone from a cheerful disposition to one of sadness?
Finally, the protagonist asks her, “Is everything okay?”
And her story floods out.
We like a hero who cares about others. Especially when things in his life aren’t going well. But we also take advantage of a minor secondary character to add texture and layers to the story.
My mom used to needlepoint. After she’d popped the needed and thread through a thousand tiny holes to make a picture, she back stitched the design with black thread so the image became clear and distinct.
Giving every character a problem in a story is like backstitching. It’s a technique, a texture, that enables the main characters and story stand out.
Considering if your secondary character needs a problem:
1. Evaluate the role of your secondary characters. When in a scene with your protagonist do they have significant dialog? Then they need a problem. Walk on characters like the mailman or UPS driver don’t need a problem.
2. Are you struggling with tension when your protagonist is talking to a secondary character? In Ane’s story, she was struggling with her protagonist when she was in a home setting. I suggested giving her husband a problems and it raised the level of tension.
3. The story feels flat. Every morning your protagonist walks into his office building and says “Hi” to the receptionist. By the time you’ve finished the book, he’s said hi to her thirty times. Give her a problem.
4. Perhaps you’re really good at giving your characters problems. Consider creating a character without problems but who acts as comic relief. She’s always doing something crazy or suggesting a wild adventures to the protagonist.
5. When you find yourself not caring about a secondary character. Eliminate him from the story or give him a problem
Hope these humble tips help. Happy writing.
Jade Fitzgerald left the pain of her past in the dust when she headed out for college a decade ago. Now she’s thriving in her career and glowing in the light of Max Benson’s love.
But then Jade’s hippie mother, Beryl Hill, arrives in Whisper Hollow, Tennessee, for Jade’s wedding along with Willow, her wild younger sister. Their arrival forces Jade to throw open the dark closets of her past–the insecurity of living with a restless, wandering mother, the silence of her absent father, and the heart-ripping pain of first-love’s rejection.
Turns out Beryl has a secret of her own. She needs reconciliation with her oldest daughter before illness takes her life. In the final days leading to the wedding, Jade meets the One who shows her that the past has no hold on her future. With a little grace, they’ll meet in the middle, maybe even before that sweet by and by.