Saturday, April 18, 2009

Donald Maass on Creating Secondary Characters

We are very pleased to feature an excerpt from famed New York literary agent Donald Maass's new book, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. In this book, Maass illuminates the techniques of master contemporary novelists. Some authors write powerhouse novels every time. What are they doing differently on the page? Maass not only explains, he shows you how you can right away use the techniques of greatness in your current manuscript.

Here's a sample - on writing secondary characters.

Secondary Characters

The heroes of popular series are memorable, but quick: Who's the most unforgettable sidekick in contemporary fiction? Takes some thought, doesn't it? Dr. Watson comes easily to mind; perhaps also Sancho Panza or Paul Drake? After that it's easier to think of sidekicks from movies or comic books.

We could issue the same challenge with respect to the great villains of contemporary literature. After Hannibal Lechter, who is there?

Come to that, how many secondary characters of any type stick in your mind from the fiction you've read in the last year? Do you read Chic-Lit? Have you ever felt that the gaggle of sassy girlfriends in one novel is pretty much the same as in the rest? How about killers and assassins? Do many of them seem to you stamped from the same mold? How about children? Do precocious kids in novels make you want to gag?

Supporting players in manuscripts are too often forgettable. They walk on, walk off, making no particular impression. What wasted opportunities, in my opinion, especially when you consider that secondary characters aren't born, they're built.

Who in your story has special stature? Is there an influential teacher, a spouse, a past love, a friend of long standing, a wizard at math? Is there a character in your story who might be given such elevated importance? It isn't that difficult to do. Next, explore the effect that this paragon has on your protagonist, then find a meaningful moment for that effect to be expressed.

Building a memorable secondary character begins with making that character memorable for your protagonist.

A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass's agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc.

Read more about The Fire in Fiction at Writers Digest.


Helen Ginger said...

Donald Maass is a good teacher. This is a book I'll check out. Thanks.


Rob Wallker said...

Maas' books are always instructive and one gets so much of how the publishing industry and what such things as "commercial" really means. A person who writes or simply wants to know what goes on in publishing and how books really get "Green Lighted" could do a lot worse than to read Maas' books or to hear him speak.

Donis Casey said...

I'm always surprised at what can happen with the secondary characters in my own work. One of my main character's half-grown children is so popular with readers that I receive almost as many comments and inquiries about him as about the protagonist. I don't know exactly why, either. This makes me understand why series authors occasionally pull out a recurring secondary character and create a story or series around her.

Vicki Delany said...

Secondary characters can be soooo important. I was delighted to read this in a review of Valley of the Lost "If you’d suggested to me before I read this book that someone could make me even vaguely interested in a character who was an ex-super model I’d have laughed at you but Eliza, John Winters’ wife, is a delight..." From Reactions to Reading

Kathryn Lilley said...

I found Writing the Breakout Novel to be very helpful. And Maass has a very good point that it's critical to create a full life and interesting world for secondary characters. I tried to do that for one of the secondary characters in my series, Mimi Morgan. Each chapter features a diet and exercise or beauty tip from a book that Mimi "wrote". I've even set up a Twitter page for her. An interviewer once asked me if I had to get permission from Mimi to use the excerpts from her books. That convinced me that I managed to create a believable character!

Kathryn Lilley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Blechta said...

Darn! I wanted to read that deleted comment so much. I'll bet it was interesting.

Maryann Miller said...

Good post. Donald sure knows his stuff and has a nice way of imparting the knowledge without making writers feel like dolts for not thinking of it first. :-)

One of the things that makes characters like Hannibal Lecter so memorable is that he is defined against type. Who could forget a polite, cultured, soft spoken cannibalistic killer?

Giving our secondary characters traits that go against type will help them become memorable.

L.J. Sellers said...

I learned a lot from Writing the Breakout Novel, and it ounds like it's time to read Donald Maass again. I have fun with a few secondary characters, but clearly there's room for more development.

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