Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Creating Dynamic Peripheral Characters

This is a blog post I never thought I would write. Why? Because I had no idea, until I went head-first into revision with one of my authors, what to say about it.

But when an editor comes back to you saying she loves the book, but she’d like to see some revision on peripheral characters, well, gosh darn it, you figure out what to say pretty fast!

So here are some tips that I came up with for my author:

Ask yourself: What is their motivation?

One of the most important elements of your novel is understanding motivation. And not just your hero and/or heroine’s. A great exercise for this is to write a piece of the book in each of your character’s perspectives. You don’t have to include this; but see what they have to say. After you give them a voice, go back to your novel, and make sure their motive and perspectives come through without needing to be in their heads.

Avoid black/white characters

No, not physically; your peripheral characters can be purple for all I care. What I mean here is: avoid blanket good/bad stereotypes. Yes, sometimes these blanket characters pop up; epic stories usually have them. But the gray area is always so much more interesting and heartbreaking.

A great example of this came to me last night, when I (re) watched (for the millionth time) Pirates of the Carribean. Captain Barbosa is clearly a bad guy…right? But that last scene, when he dies, and the bright green apple falls from his fingers…you definitely feel heartbroken for the guy, don’t you? That little detail, those darned apples, were a beautiful plot device for making him more dynamic. They were a physical representation of his motive. He wasn’t bad for the sake of being bad; he was in pain. Yes, he also gets a chance to explain his motive to us, but it’s the apples that really drive it home.

Ask yourself: Are these characters just tools to an end?

Part of what may make a character seem less dynamic is if they only exist to drive forward the plot. Yes, yes; back to the epic fantasy example, sometimes it’s unavoidable to encounter these “extras.” Not every character in a movie needs to run up to the heroine and explain their motivation. I think, perhaps, creating a little map of where each character in your book falls in relation to the hero/heroine should demonstrate the appropriate level of development in your novel:

As the circle widens, the development lessens.

Great; I’ve done the circle and the exercise. Now what?

Good question. Everyone’s approach to revision is different. But to start, think back to the Barbosa example: allow your peripheral characters a chance to explain themselves. Their motivations are going to have to come through via interaction with the hero and/or heroine, if you don’t have multiple POVs (which I never recommend). So go back to pivotal scenes, and give them a voice!


  1. I love that circle! Great exercise. We spend so much time developing our main characters, we tend to put the peripheral characters on the back burner, but they need to be fully fleshed out as well. There are character worksheets I've used, but what seems to help me (when I stick to it) is the Goal, Motivation, Conflict exercise I did in the 90s based on a book that was popular then. Each character has a goal, a motivation for having that goal, and something standing in his/her way of achieving that goal. I always do that for my main characters but never for my secondary...and I need to work on that!

  2. I've been carefully working out little spider diagrams for all my peripheral characters before I start work on the main characters. They also all have time lines that intertwine with everyone else in the book.

  3. Great post. My secondary characters are never fleshed out enough. I always have to go back through my revisions and editing to add more life to them. This will help big time.

    @Stephanie, I'm pretty sure I know what book you're talking about. I was thinking of getting it.

  4. @jasouders -- It's called GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict and was written by Debra Dixon. I think the author now runs a small publishing company. It was a great workshop.

  5. I have the opposite problem. My peripheral characters keep wanting to hijack my book! I have to keep slapping them back down to size or my book will end up being about the 13 year-old farmhand, not the people it's supposed to be about.

  6. I've always thought every character has an agenda. It doesn't have to be to the detriment of the H/H, but characters have baggage and that baggage effects how they relate to other characters. Even the bartender serving your heroine a drink will relate to a cute 21 yo differently than a 45 yo, so the question is--how. :-) The fun part is doing something unexpected with them to show their motives.

  7. Great advice! I always wonder, how much is too much, and how little is too little when it comes to my secondary characters. The diagram was very helpful!

  8. Loved the post, Natalie, but the circle definitely made it for me. :)