Passing Ships

A novel has been likened to a journey, and that entails at least the main character starting at Point A and moving to Point Z by the end. Along with movement comes progression, or building. That’s because a reader’s identification with a character deepens the more times they appear, and if the character isn’t developing in tandem, the reader starts to lose interest. If no one is going anywhere, why am I reading this book?

Most authors readily grasp the notion of an arc, but their attention can be focused on the protagonist to the exclusion of others. In large part, that occurs because the author identifies most with the hero. Often the hero is the author at a younger age. While a singular focus can yield many riches, it can cause a problem with your supporting characters.

I rank such characters in an upper circle, and most authors can only probe a half dozen to any significant depth—that is, making them stand out to the reader. To achieve that stature, they must appear multiple times during the course of the book. Here is where the problem comes in. They may represent a fixed entity that serves as an ongoing source of conflict with the protagonist. This is particularly true of adult characters in a realistic drama. Let’s face it: how much do people change past the age of 30?

So what’s the problem? As the novel develops, the arguments and commentary that your protagonist engages in with a character that is static will after a while also become static. They fight about the same basic stuff. The protagonist’s thoughts about the character are the same. How could it be otherwise when that supporting character is fixed in their plot purpose?

To correct that, you need to devise the novel’s structure so that person is also progressing. If the character is a stay-at-home mom, for example, why isn’t she getting on with her life? If the protagonist is old enough to retain the reader’s interest, at least an adolescent, is the mother really happy to be stuck at home while the kids fly the coop? More to the point, how interesting is that character to the reader? If the mother also is on the move—taking a job, for example—then the child has new reasons to argue, new resentments to stew over. That’s all I want: new explosions.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye on only one supporting character. For each active scene they have, or interior monologue about them, write a quick summary of what it’s about. Do you start seeing that later scenes are only an elaboration on what happened earlier? Don’t change the subject of the scene. Change the position of the character so that they are developing too.

“Once you do away with the idea of people as fixed, static entities, then you see that people can change, and there is hope.” —bell hooks

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.