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Writing Excuses 8.4: Side-Character Arcs

Writing Excuses 8.4: Side-Character Arcs


Key points: Every character is the hero of their own story. A character arc is the change in the emotional state of a character from the beginning to the end of a story. Even side characters who do not get a viewpoint may need a character arc. Side character arcs can illustrate important points about the main characters. Side character arcs give your book a sense of depth. Side character arcs, with side character needs and motivations, let the side character be the hero of their own story. This lets the side character act on their own, even in conflict with the main character. Character arcs don't always get better -- a descent or betrayal is also a useful arc, sometimes. The side character arc descending can help raise the stakes. Showing us the side character's needs and wants, their arc, takes subtlety. Remember, even little people can hold a spear.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode Four.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Today we're talking about character arcs for secondary characters.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm not a POV character, but I'm still important.
[Brandon] That's right.
[Mary] [laughter]
[Brandon] We're specifically talking...
[Howard] No, really.
[Brandon] [chuckle]
[Mary] Sorry. Did I laugh at you?
[Howard] I'm the hero of my own story.
[Mary] I'm sure you are, dear.
[Dan] Hero of the most boring story.
[Mary] Here, hold this spear.

[Brandon] [laughter] Oh. We're talking, if you can't tell... When you say secondary characters in this context, we're saying they're never going to get a viewpoint, but you still want to do a character arc for them. Let's talk a little bit about character arcs. What do we mean by that? We've done this before, but... How are we going to approach this character arc for somebody who's not important enough to get a viewpoint? Should they have a character arc?
[Dan] Not all of them.
[Howard] If they don't have... Well, yeah.
[Mary] Not all of them. But sometimes you do want that.
[Howard] If they don't have a character arc, then they very quickly become two-dimensional. If all you need is a face in the crowd, two-dimensional is fine because we never focus on them. But if they are walking along next to your main character, people will quickly notice if there's no depth. The... So... Yeah. A few of your side characters, depending on how big the work is.
[Mary] Well, depending on... In many ways, depending on how important they are to your main character. Because a lot of it has to do with what your main character is noticing. So let's pause for a second and talk about what character arc is, since it's been a while since we've talked about it?
[Chorus] Yeah.

[Mary] So character arc, using the MICE quotient, a character arc is basically looking at where your character is at the beginning of the story and having them wind up in the... This is their emotional state... And having them wind up in a different emotional state by the end of the story. Sometimes that emotional state can be represented as the character's dissatisfied with their role in life, and by the end of the story, they are either have learned to become satisfied or they have learned to become reconciled to being dissatisfied.
[Doorbell ding dong]
[Brandon] Ding, dong.
[Mary] I must have gotten that right!
[Dan] Congratulations!
[Background voice – Jordo? something says?]
[Dan] You've won... A watermelon.
[Howard] What is the watermelon for?
[Dan] Because she won.
[Mary] No. Buckaroo Banzai.
[Brandon] Okay, okay, okay.
[Mary] Sorry.
[Brandon] I want to kind of spin this and say...
[Mary] Actually, he's a fine example of a... Go on.

[Brandon] This is a useful topic, because sometimes under this definition your side characters may be more main characterish, they just don't get a viewpoint. Let's say you're writing an intense first-person viewpoint story, and it's going to have a romantic interest. The main character is going to. That romantic interest is never going to get a viewpoint. That character definitely needs a character arc. Mr. Darcy has a character arc.
[Mary] Yes he does.
[Brandon] Yet Mr. Darcy really doesn't have any viewpoints.
[Mary] Actually, that's not true.
[Brandon] Oh, isn't it? Okay. Those books, I can never remember how omniscient they are.
[Mary] Just totally omniscient.
[Brandon] Just omniscient. Okay.
[Mary] But let me use my own. If we look at Glamour in Glass, I stay in tight third person all the way through. Mr. Vincent definitely has a character arc through that, because he is learning how to be married and learning to share the process... He's used to being a solo artist, and he's having to learn how to be part of a team. He's a Regency gentleman and sharing with your wife is not something that comes easily.
[Brandon] [chuckle] Yes.
[Mary] So I... So that's something that I had to try to come up with ways to show his emotional state in a way that Jane could understand it. Also, one of the tricks that I used was the misunderstandings, where the main character does not understand, and the tension between those two things.
[Brandon] Right. Dan?

[Dan] One of the great things that you can do by giving character arcs to side characters, is illustrate something important about your main character. The example I want to use is something I did in Partials. There's a... It's kind of about rebellion. There's a very repressive government, and the main character keeps trying to win people over to her side, so to speak. There's a side character that doesn't... Is not convinced by her until the end. He has a very strong arc of "Party line. I do what I'm told. I'm a soldier." By the end of it, he finally says, "You know what, you're right. I'm not going to stand for this anymore, and join you." What this does is, it gives him an interesting arc, but it also illustrates her leadership, as the main character's personality, that she's managed to bring him over and teach him something important.
[Brandon] Yeah. Excellent. In... How shall I say? This is really important because this is what's going to give your book a real sense of depth. This is one of the things that early on in my career, before I got published, I was doing very poorly. I've talked about this before. One thing I learned, for myself is, I don't understand someone until I write through their eyes. It's actually very common for me to write a scene from a character that I'm not planning to put in... The scene in the book, so that I can see through their eyes. Dan, you've done this before for main characters and things. It might be a way to wrap your head around them. You don't... It's very hard for writers to write something that doesn't... That they're not going to put in the book. I've found with a lot of writers. Like, why not put it in? Well, sometimes it's just not going to belong in the narrative, and yet, if you have this written, you know what's going on with them. There is a famous side character in my books named Hoid who connects all of my novels. I know what Hoid's doing. I've written viewpoints for Hoid. I've written entire chapters from Hoid's viewpoint. They would distract from the book. Main reason that they would is that people would become more interested in what he's doing than what's happening in the novels. I don't want that to happen. I... By doing that, I'm able to know this character so well that I can have him making appearances in scenes and acting like himself and pursuing his motives without him stealing the scene from what's going on at that moment. Then, later on, if I... When I tell stories about him, you'll be able to go back and say, "Oh, okay. This is what he's doing in this scene." It informs his story. It's a method that not... To not let the side characters steal the show. Which is sometimes really important.

[Mary] Yeah. One of the things that you talked about there, when you were talking about how he has his own needs and motivations and all of that. It gets back to what Howard opened with, which is that every character is the hero of their own story. That by giving your character needs and motivations... The side character... That have nothing to do with what the main character wants, you can also have them acting in ways that are contrary to the main character's expectations and wants, which again gives you a way for the main character... Gives you a conflict for the main character to react against.
[Brandon] Yeah. Exactly.

[Howard] I... One of the challenges that I face is that I don't have tight third person viewpoint. It is difficult for people to tell when a character is not a... For lack of a better term, POV character, because I will often, if something interesting is happening, the camera just follows that person into the next room and we get to see what's happening. What's critical to remember is that I can't do that without knowing that character's voice, without knowing what they want, without knowing how they're going to react, what they feel about things. I have had... Recently I did some... I introduced some characters that I knew were going to die, because people had paid for me to put their likenesses in the book and then kill them. It is no fun for me to have somebody show up and then just die, and have a name because somebody paid for that. So I introduced a couple of scientists who had some dialogue, some back-and-forth dialogue. The moment the dialogue started, I realized that one of them was very, very fascinated with what was going on, and the other one was really interested in getting published. It was a simple... It was kind of a two-dimensional dynamic, but it only needed... I only need these guys around long enough to say a few key lines, make a few plot points, and then die. They're allowed to be two-dimensional. But even so, there is a little bit of this arc going on, as they're discovering things that are publishable, and it changes their attitude towards each other, and they work together a little better at the end of that series of strips than they did at the beginning. Then they both die.
[Mary] [chuckle]

[Brandon] Excellent, excellent. Dan? You have our book of the week.
[Dan] Yes. One of my very favorite authors of all time is Philip K. Dick, and we've talked about several of his books. But the one we want to talk about today is The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which is kind of... It's one of his stand-alone novels, but it leads into eventually kind of what became his almost kind of more religious books that he would write eventually. But it's the kind of book that has so many huge ideas that a lesser author would base the entire book around a single one of them, and he just throws them out like they're candy on the side of the road.
[Howard] Road candy is my favorite.
[Dan] Road candy. So, anyway, it's a really great book. It's got a guy returning from contact with an alien species, and bringing with him what I will describe as a contag... Biologically contagious philosophy. It is fascinating to read about. Excellent book. If you love Philip K. Dick, if you like science fiction, read this one.
[Howard] The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch?
[Dan] Correct.
[Howard] At, start yourself a 30 day free trial membership. Pick up the Philip K. Dick book for free and another Philip K. Dick book for 30% off.

[Brandon] Now, speaking of character arcs, there's one thing that I want to talk about here, is we naturally assume a character arc is going to be someone getting better. But there is another type of character arc, and you actually see this one much more often for side characters. Which is the slow descent into madness or evil-hood or slowly the best friend ends up betraying them or things like this. This... These... This is very common. Maybe even... I wouldn't say overused, but it happens a lot in kind of things like video games. You can watch and play the game and be like, "All right. There's the one that's going to betray him." Just right out of the window because of how stereotypical sometimes these things are. You can do it very well, also.
[Howard] We talked in an earlier episode this season about raising the stakes. A great way to raise the stakes is to have that moment in a character... A side character's arc where the reader realizes, "Oh, I thought this person was going to get better. But it appears that they are going to get worse, and I'm very sad, because that this character is now becoming somebody that the hero will no longer like, and who may betray us."
[Brandon] A fantastic example of this is Gollum from the Lord of the Rings. His arc is delightful because it actually arcs upward and then plummets...
[Mary] Plummets.
[Brandon] Downward. That arc, it's not too much tugging on us... If someone went back and forth too many times, we would just lose compassion, but us hoping... I've said before, my mother watched those movies and she only cared about two things. Will Aragon get together with the nice elf woman? Then, as soon as Smeagol came along, my mother fell in love with him. She's never really read any fantasy before, but she's like, "Little Smeagol's going to be a good guy, right? I can tell. Look, he's becoming a good guy. Little Smeagol..."
[Mary] Oh...
[Brandon] She was so into Smeagol.
[Mary] Ooh, that's [inaudible]
[Howard] I remember watching the movies, and I think it was that... It was the second film where we get some Smeagol POV. I remember thinking, "Wow, what's this? They've written him growing almost genuinely nice. I never sensed that from the book. There are people who haven't read the book who are going to think that Gollum doesn't betray them in the end. Oh, my, what a great thing Peter Jackson has done."
[Dan] [chuckle] This is awesome.
[Howard] Yeah, it was really cool.

[Dan] A property that does this really well, both in the comics and in the movies, is the X-Men. Because what you have is two competing philosophies. There's this big problem, and Prof. X wants to solve it one way, Magneto wants to solve it another way. And in X-Men 2, for example, you get to watch Pyro, this teenager who's very hotheaded, and he's torn. He knows he should be good, but he keeps seeing all this evidence that Magneto's way might be a lot more effective. By the end of the movie, he betrays everybody and goes over there. It's a great way of drawing out the differences between the two schools of thought.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Howard] It was also neat, in looking at Pyro, the temptation that Pyro was offered by Magneto was I will let you use your abilities to a fuller extent than Prof. X will. Because we keep seeing Pyro being treated like a kid. "No, you can't go be on a mission with the grown-ups. You can't... No, that's dangerous. Don't do that." Magneto is like, "Oh, let's set stuff on fire."
[Dan] [chuckle]

[Mary] So what are some of the ways that we can demonstrate that character's needs and wants?
[Brandon] Without giving them the viewpoint.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] The one that Dan... Since we're on this X-Men thing, the one that Dan often points out to me as a great element from that film is there's a point where Pyro looks at the family of the other, like the Iceman guy. They're visiting the family home, and he sees this happy family. You see him just baffled and concerned, just looking at it, and you know he came from a broken home. The moments where... These side characters, what you're going to have to do is you're going to have to be subtle. You're going to have to use these moments, where they're on stage, very powerfully to show what's happening with them, because you can't have them sit and pontificate. "I came from a broken home, and so therefore I envy my friend here, and I have to react against that and become more powerful." You have to do it with a moment of him looking at and saying, "Wow, your family's actually happy." Or something like that.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that the question is how your POV character reacts to that moment. Whether your POV character notices it for what it is, or whether your POV character misunderstands it, and you try to let the audience have a different understanding.
[Howard] The... In prose...
[Mary] I think you can play it both ways.
[Howard] In prose, with Wolverine. Wolverine looked over at Pyro and caught the look of disgust on his face and mumbled to himself, "I don't care what you think of the wallpaper, kid. Keep it off your face. You know, poker face." Wolverine has no idea what's going through Pyro's head, but he has now shown us that Pyro is looking on this family disgustedly.

[Dan] While we're talking about Pyro, because he is such a great example of this. He's contrasted with Iceman. So first of all, you don't need a POV from Pyro because you have Prof. X saying on-screen, "Pyro, knock it off. Stop using your power." We don't need Pyro's point-of-view in order to get that particular message across. But then arguably, the POV character we do have is Iceman, who is dealing with the same problem and makes the opposite decision.
[Brandon] Right. The contrast...
[Dan] So that helps illustrate then what Pyro's decisions are.
[Brandon] The contrast. Yeah. I would say, again, to reinforce the concept of subtlety with your side characters, because you don't want them stealing the show, but you want to lay the groundwork there. You're going to have to be better with show don't tell versus... With them, but these things can be powerful. These things can be awesome. They add the depth to your writing that's going to take you from that talented amateur to obvious professional by how you treat all the little people around the main characters.
[Dan] [chuckle]
[Brandon] They're all laughing at me about the little people.
[Dan] [chuckle]
[Howard] They're laughing and looking at me. I really am the hero of my own story.
[Mary] And you held that spear very well.

[Dan] That's your writing prompt for today. Write a story...
[Howard] Message for you, sire.
[Dan] In which Howard is the hero of the most boring story.
[Brandon] Yeah. No, no, it doesn't have to be Howard. The hero of the most boring story ever, and make it interesting. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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