Monday, November 14, 2011

When Secondary Characters Steal the Spotlight

    This past weekend, I attended the always-fantastic Prairie Writer's Day in Palatine, Illinois, hosted by our state chapter of SCBWI. One of the highlights of the day was a Skype visit by author Bruce Hale. He had his 200+ - person audience in stitches as he talked about the secrets of humor. But the one point I took away from his talk had more to do with secondary characters than with humor.
     Hale compared the main character in one's story to the sun. That character should be three-dimensional, which we've all heard before and hopefully, dutifully, and painstakingly accomplish with rewriting. However, he said that not all characters should not be as fully-fleshed out as the MC or they can outshine the star of your story.  Makes sense.
    When I heard this, it hit home because recent feedback on one of my manuscripts pointed to that very problem. An editor complimented two of my secondary characters, their role in the story, their personalities and quirks. Missing? The love for my MC.
     If your secondary characters are stealing the spotlight from your MC, ask yourself why. Is it because you're writing from your MC's eyes and you're forgetting those details that help define his/her personality? Or maybe your secondary characters want to tell the story instead. Whatever the reason, revision is in order.
     As I revise, I'll be paying particular attention to my MC and how he interacts with those noisy, boisterous secondary characters. He'll need to take center stage again, clamp a hand over their mouths, and remind them to be a little less show-offy. As the writer, I'm just the person to help him to that.


  1. I think this is a common problem that's hard to escape even if the main character is three-dimensional. For example, I love the Harry Potter series, but Harry Potter was always one of my least favorite characters. No one can accuse Harry Potter of not being three-dimensional!

    But main characters tend to suffer from exposure overload, sort of like how we can get sick of a favorite celebrity if they feature in the news too much. Characters are more interesting if they have a little...mystique, to them, and secondary characters often fit the bill.

    I think that in order to combat this, we need to make sure that our narratives don't excuse the main character just because they're the main character. In other words, make them have interesting choices, but don't always support their choices - leave room to be critical of your main character. It's part of being three-dimensional, and also, your readers won't feel force fed the main character. And maybe leave a little mystique, too. Don't give us all of them - let us figure out some things on our own.

  2. Hmmmm. I had never considered this problem before. You've given me something to think about.

  3. I've fallen in love with secondary characters before, but I've never had one take over or over shadow my MC. I'd really question whether you are letting the right person tell the story. Maybe try writing a chapter from another character's POV and see how it goes.

    Good luck!

  4. @ Annalise: Well said! I especially like the idea of not supporting all of their choices. Hopefully that ties into the idea that the main character show grow from those negative experiences.
    @ inluvwithwords: Exactly! It was a light bulb moment for me, too!

  5. Interesting post, especially as I'm embarking on a revision with the goal of rounding out my main character.

  6. Thanks for this though-provoking post. It's something I hadn't really thought of. Now I think I'll take a look at some of my stories and see if this is where some of the problems lie!

  7. Very true -- the supporting cast is often deliberately less dimensional. If one of them springs to life and demands to take over, could be it's THEIR book.

  8. I like your blog name.

    Stopping by to have a look around.



  9. @ Elizabeth: It's nice to meet you! Thank you for stopping by!

  10. You raise a very interesting point. I'm doing a rewrite at present, and I'll keep this question in mind. I do have some interesting secondary characters. I'm not sure I'd want to tone them down too much, but it probably means I need to build the MC more so she can outshine them. Thanks for the share.


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