Working the Other End

An author tends to regard a novel from the point of view of the protagonist. That is fitting, because the most notes, sketches, and actual scenes revolve around the hero. Yet this prism leaves out subsidiary possibilities that can have solid emotional impacts on the reader. 

Take the concept of a supporting player. We know what their role is: to support the main characters. Yet because the #2 character in a book can also be a supporting character (to #1), you have to consider varying dramatic weights of roles all the way down the ranks. Are you bringing all of your forces to bear?

Let’s suppose that you have two married couples who are friendly. One from each has an affair with the other. Your protagonist is one of the maligned, let’s say Perry, a husband. Your focus is on him, the deception of his wife, Claire, and the other husband, William. That’s the menage-à-trois. Later in the draft you realize that William’s wife, Evelyn, might be useful—if Perry and Evelyn met to commiserate. 

Good planning all around, right? Now consider emotional impacts. If you want the reader to root for Perry, how are you effectuating that? Through being wronged by both Claire and William, plus hearing Evelyn’s teary story. Now ask yourself: what about their children? You may have a scene or two where they run through the kitchen, but they are just kids. Sex is so far above their heads.

You are evaluating the matter through Perry’s eyes. Yet you can make the world around him work for your purposes. What if you featured the children in both families more prominently? Choose Perry’s daughter, Wendy, age 10, and a girl from Evelyn’s family. They could have scenes with Perry as an active participant. Do you think girls of that age are dopes? They don’t pick up adult vibes? If Wendy finds out about her mother, now what does your emotional calculus look like?

This knock-on effect can be employed in a wide range of scenarios. Even a minor character can contribute to creating a groundswell. You stage events so that you keep raising the stakes. Who knows? Aunt Brodie and her brownies might come in handy. 

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for minor characters in a main setting. Not characters who already are featured in scenes with a main character. The ones below that, who function basically as part of the setting. Could they be given speaking roles? Maybe they could appear in three scenes spaced apart over the course of half the book. Now you have another viewpoint that can create friction around a main character’s transgressions.

“Some women want the strong silent type, so they can tell him to shut up and rearrange the furniture. —P. J. O’Rourke

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.