Monday, March 8, 2010

Writing: The Joy and the Pain

As a writer, you sometimes have to push passed the roadblocks to get to the meat of the story. Sometimes, those roadblocks are there for a reason. Have you ever read a book and wondered why an author took a detour from the main plot? Or worse, wondered why the author plowed through a subplot as if it wasn't there? As readers, we are trained to look for the subtleties in the story, to examine the idly mentioned characters and even the nuance of a background scene for a clue that may trump the story in later chapters.

You can blame writers like M. Night Shyamalan for this. I do. Shyamalan is the creative genius behind The Sixth Sense, the movie that changes dramatically with the twist at the end. Sadly, no other film of his has truly lived up to the power of the first because moviegoers are now conditioned to look for that "twist."

We are so conditioned to expect the bait and switch that we look for it. What is worse is that sometimes we're disappointed when we don't find it. One of the first rules of writing and editing is that if it doesn't move the scene along, if it doesn't contribute to the goal of your storytelling, then it goes. So when I am writing a first draft, I am constantly asking myself – does this scene really need to be here? Does this help tell the story? What about this character? Are they here just for scenery? Or do they actually contribute?


In Prime Evil there is a character that appears on just a couple of pages. His name is Tracker. My editor challenged me about his presence in the story – after all, what did he really contribute? Not much – at that time, except that I needed him there, I needed him to be a part of what was going on in a role that left him at loose ends. Because I knew that, he was coming back. While his presence may not have propelled that book, I knew that down the line, he had a greater role to play and I needed to have him present.

Tracker is an interesting character with a tremendous back-story. We're only afforded glimpses of that back story, moments, mentions, anecdotal at best because the story is not told from his perspective. But knowing what I know about him, I knew he needed to be there. This is where trusting the writer comes into play.

Supporting Characters

Think about author J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) and the sheer number of characters that populate her In Death series. She has so many of them, some have small roles, some have large, but each one contributes not only to the book they are in, but also to the greater canvas of her world. Who would have thought when we first met Eve's best friend Mavis or even Dr. Mira that these two characters would become pivotal points for driving story thirty books later?

The cops, of course, are to be expected, they work with Eve. But there's the history of officer Trueheart. He was a uniformed cop who Eve took a liking to and the same for Peabody who has gone from beat cop to subordinate aid to friend and partner. The truth is, as wonderful as Eve and Roarke are, their story is made visceral and so much more moving by the inclusion of supporting characters whether the moments are fleeting or embedded.

Trusting the Author

We all want to write the story that has the twist that you didn't see coming. We all want to tell you a tale that makes you go "wow"! That wow factor, of course, is important. We want you to want to read our books. If you are constantly "wowed" by us, then you'll come back. But we have to not abuse that trust and do our utmost to keep those twists fresh and full of life. After all, who wants to see the same twist repeatedly? Sometimes, the best twists are the supporting characters, the ones we know better than you do, but who intrigue you enough to want to know more. Chances are, if the next book features that character, you're already primed to be wowed – and you'll give the book a shot.

It is all we can really ask for. So yes, there are joys and pains to answering these connections. But our characters are usually all the payoff we need.

What supporting character have you recently gone "wow" for?


  1. Thadicus Zorander in the Seeker television series surprised me recently. I've only read "Wizard's First Rule" thus far as the books go, and I don't remember if he was mentioned in it or not. As he's portrayed in the series, I never expected to see him again let alone see him play a pivotal part in the war with the Keeper.

  2. A.B. I have to agree with you there. I wasn't expecting Thadicus' return and I did love his interactions with Zed, Cara and more. I think supporting characters that return add a sense of realism to a world whether it's set in a fantasy realm or a more urban one.