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To Act Like a Secondary Character, Think Like a Main Character

Today’s writing-related Challenge of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is really about your secondary characters – just from your main character’s eyes. That’s the best way to portray them accurately and effectively.

We’ll get into the meat of things in a moment, but first, the actual challenge goes like this:

Let readers relate to your secondary characters.

Secondary characters are necessary to the plot, not to mention to the main character. So they need to stand out.

Help your readers feel something for or about them by giving them vivid personalities and distinctive looks. You want to make them memorable, encouraging readers to care about them, hate them or fear them in the same exact way your main character does.

To do this, think like your protagonist whenever you mention them. See what they see, and feel what they feel.

Easier said than done, I know. But that’s why it’s called a challenge. And it’s a realistic one too. It just takes practice and the right mindset to develop properly. Maybe even a bit of writerly meditation. You know, closing your eyes, breathing in deeply and visualizing where you want to be.

In this case, where you want to be is inside your main character’s mind.

Now, I’m normally not into meditation. I’m way too ADD for that stuff. It sounds like a form of torture to me – a sneaky way around the Geneva Convention’s established rules of war. But even I can recognize the value of taking a minute to “feel” my protagonist’s perspective.

(I had to put “feel” in quotation marks because it sounded too cheesy otherwise.)

This exercise is slightly difficult to describe without examples, so I’m going to refer to one of my historical fiction novels, Designing America, for a moment.

The sequel to Maiden America, it’s set in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia, and has some awesome interactions between main character Abigail Carpenter and bad guy Banastre Tarleton, if I do say so myself. I had an absolute blast writing about this real-life antagonist, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a tricky process at times as I tried to marry actual history with my fictional character’s perspective.

Designing America shows Abigail despising Tarleton, since she blames him for a series of war crimes that she – and the rest of early America – is certain he committed. But Americans today can find a much more complex narrative about Banastre Tarleton than the one she accepted. While he was indisputably arrogant, with even some of his fellow British officers getting royally annoyed about his attitude issues, he might have actually behaved more gentlemanly than he’s given credit for.

Recognizing that raised the question of how to make him a believable and effective bad guy without unnecessarily defaming him. I ended up solving that problem by describing his behavior one way and Abigail’s attitude of him in a whole different light.

When she first meets Tarleton, she’s terrified of him. And when she has to suffer his acquaintance for several weeks, her horror largely morphs into disgust. There’s not a single thing he does that she approves of, and she makes that very clear.

Because of the differing accounts I read of him, and since I had the luxury of being far removed from the brutal and drawn-out conflict in question, I could see that much of Tarleton’s behavior in Designing America really wasn’t so bad. As such, after I described his action, I would sometimes have to stop myself in order to relinquish my author hat and adopt Abigail’s persona instead.

How would she interpret his friendly smiles and offers of commiseration? What angle could I take to twist a casual conversation enough to annoy her?

It didn’t take too long before I was so solidly in her head that I didn’t have to stop myself any more. Her disgusted interpretation of everything he did just came out naturally.

Which meant that when things took a far less amusing and much more dramatic turn toward the end of the book, I truly believe I was able to capture it with every bit of intense effect I was hoping for.

Feel free to tell me if you disagree, but thanks to my experience writing Designing America, I'm all in with this “meditation” challenge. When designing secondary characters, it's a great skill to master.

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