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Writing Excuses 8.36: Transitioning Characters in Prominence

Writing Excuses 8.36: Transitioning Characters in Prominence


Key points: Main characters may fade into the background, while side characters grow in prominence. Your fans may be annoyed. How do you decide who to promote? Plot or character? You may do it to flesh out the character. You may want to do Anne McCaffrey style series, with several books in the same world, but with different main characters. Characters who have come to a natural conclusion don't need another arc artificially imposed on them. Also, there is a limit to how much you can do with one person's life and be believable. So look at your side characters, consider filling them out and making them interesting, and tell another story.

[Brandon] Ladies and gentlemen, before we start this week's episode of Writing Excuses, Howard and I would like to say something. If you aren't aware, Writing Excuses has been honored with a Hugo award.
[Howard] Yay!
[Brandon] Yay!
[Howard] We're thrilled. We are absolutely excited and thrilled... And of course the word parser in my brain has now shut down so I can only come up with two words.
[Brandon] Yes. The Hugo award is the highest honor given to science fiction and fantasy works and related works. We won in the best related work category. Which is a really great thing to... Great honor for us because it is a nonfiction category. It has to do with things that enhance the science fiction and fantasy experience. That is apparently what the Hugo voters have decided we do.
[Howard] It's not just an honor for us, it's an honor for the people who have appeared on our cast, and dropped their mad knowledge on us and on you. So here's a list in order of their appearance during season seven of the many guests we had. Sam Sykes,
Sarah Pinborough, David Brin, Larry Correia, James Artimus Owen, James Dashner, Michael Collings, Michaelbrent Collings, Eric James Stone, Monte Cook, Shanna Germain, Maurice Broaddus, Janci Patterson, James L Sutter, and Jim Zub. I remember every one of those episodes, recording them, except Sam Sykes and Sarah Pinborough, because I think that was just Dan and Mary. But the guests that I do remember, which is all of them but those first two, those were so much fun. You guys, you guests who might be listening to this, I don't know if we've said this before, but you make it so easy for us to record because we can go back over topics where we think we're completely dry and we ask you a question and we suddenly realize it's as if we hadn't even thought about this at all.
[Brandon] Yep. We really should take one of these Hugos and chop it up and give a piece to each of them. I nominate Dan's Hugo.
[Howard] I actually nominate Jordo's because it's made out of a pinecone and a banana.
[Brandon] That's right, that's right. Well, thank you guys all so much for all of your support and for listening. We'll get on with the episode, but really this was the greatest honor I think we have ever received as podcasters. We are just so humbled.

[Mary] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by Audible. Visit to start your free trial membership.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, transitioning characters in prominence.
[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 Howard, coming at you live sort of in front of an audience here at Woodthrush Woods writing retreat. Make noise, people.
[Mary] Just so you know, we're recording these over the course of like two days. These are not actually a three-month writing retreat.
[Brandon] We have all been living in Mary's parents basement for the last...
[Dan] We think the guests have almost found a way out...
[Brandon] Yes. All right...
[Mary] That's okay. We've got the cleaver.

[Brandon] This is another one of those topics that I have to explain because I came up with it. The idea is that occasionally when you're writing fiction, particularly if you're writing a series or something that is one big long series like Howard, you will take main characters and you will decide the best thing to do is to fade them into the background. That you've told their stories. Other times you will say, "This side character. Let's bring them forward and make them awesome and make the story about them." I was thinking a lot about Howard when I designed this podcast. So I want to talk about this concept, particularly...
[Howard] I feel awesome.
[Brandon] My first question is going to be for you, Howard. Have you ever had readers and fans get annoyed when you do this?
[Howard] Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. They... When I introduce characters for whatever reason, there are always people who don't like that character. Don't like the way he or she is drawn, don't like the way... Just don't like a thing. Any character I put in the comic... I never throw anything away. Any character I put in the comic is game to be used for something that would fit what their character would do. That feels to me very natural. I've had... Every so often somebody will email me, and Sandra now filters these out, so go ahead and send all you want, I'll never read them. Email me and say, "The comic strip is called Schlock Mercenary. How come we don't see Schlock every week?" Well, because sometimes he's not the character in the most pain. Sometimes what he's doing isn't really all that interesting. Sometimes putting him on the panel would be kind of boring. I did... When I did the Massively Parallel storyline, I took a big risk and only had Schlock in the comic for about three and a half, four months over the course of... I think nine months. There were a lot of complaints because the characters that were on the screen... They're like, "Where's Schlock?"

[Brandon] Okay. How do you... This is for anyone... How do you take one of these side characters and... What about them makes you interested in them? How do you decide... Is it more of a plotting thing? "Oh, I need a new character here." Or is it you get fascinated by this character so you decide to end up telling a story about them? Dan.
[Dan] Yeah. Let me tell you about Marci from the Serial Killer books. She is one of my favorite characters, next to John, my favorite character in that series. She started as a background character in the first book. She became slightly more important in the second, in part because I needed a foil for the other teenage girl, Brooks. John wouldn't allow himself to obsess about Brooks, but he was losing control and so he needed to obsess about somebody. So I said, "Well, I've got this girl from the first book, let's use her." So that got me interested in Marci. It made me think about who she was, because John started to think about who she was. So in the third book, when I required another love interest, I pulled her up and started to build her into a full character. One of the reasons that I like her so much as a character is that she... She... In order to bring her to prominence, I had to figure her out. What does she like, what does she not like, and more specifically, how is she different from Brooks, from the other girl in the story? That's what really defined her, was me looking for ways to make her unique, and that formed her into a more full character.
[Brandon] When I have done this... The biggest character I did this with was Spook in the Mistborn trilogy. When I've done it... One of the main reasons I did this with him... This was one of the things that wasn't in the outline. People have asked me, "Did you outline the whole trilogy?" I did. There are certain things that weren't... Him becoming a main viewpoint character in the third book was not part of the outline. One of the main reasons I did it is I found that I was... I had... I kept falling back to making him a very shallow character. He was there for comic relief, he was doing silly things, and I was annoyed with myself in having a character that repeatedly did not have the depth of the other characters around him. So I found myself saying, "Well, I've gotta find out who this kid is. I've got to be telling his story as well as everyone else's." Forcing myself to do that, I did all of this sort of building around him and decided, "Well, he's got an interesting story. Now I really should tell it." So I gave him a little plot cycle in the third book. This was basically me being annoyed with myself. It caused me to do this. Now Mary, you said that you have not done this in any published works?
[Mary] Right. But I was thinking about it as we were talking and realized that that is entirely incorrect, because I do this every single time I change POVs within a story. Any time that you have one POV character and then you change POVs and that character is present in the scene that is visible from someone else's point of view, you are switching which character is prominent. That's... For me, I actually will sometimes write the same scene from two different POVs to see which one has the stronger emotional impact. But for me, what I'm looking for when I do that is a way to, as Dan was saying, a way to flesh out the character. I have to think not just about who the other character is, like... If I were switching from... I'm trying to think of something that people might have read. But if I'm... In Bound Man, I was switching from Li Reiko to Halldor. So I have to not only think about who Halldor is, but I also have to think about what Li Reiko looks like from the outside. That is one of the things that a lot of people I think skip. That they don't think about how the character's actions are perceived by other people. Because a lot of times your main character winds up being a jerk. Because they are the ones that are making action happen, and you don't think about making that jerkiness apparent, or making their charm apparent. So I'm looking for ways to do that.
[Dan] I'm glad you brought that up because that's another thing... Excuse me... Going back to Marci, that's one of the other things that made her a great character is because John is constantly so down on himself and everyone in his life thinks he's terrifying. Marci had only seen him be heroic and thought he was awesome. That redefined the main character's perception of himself.

[Brandon] All right. Let's do our book of the week. Our book of the week is actually The Rithmatist, which I forgot to do a book of the week on for several weeks. It's been out for a while now. It is my new book for teens. It is a mashup of two primary ideas. The first being me wanting to tell a story about the muggle at Hogwarts, the story of a kid with no magic who gets sent to a magic school, not because he's Chosen or The Chosen One or anything like that, but because he's the son of the cleaning lady and he gets free tuition. That concept was fascinating to me, the kid who gets to go and get a world-class education at some private school, but the real purpose of the private school, to teach the magic, he has no talent in and can't really learn anything, doesn't get to go to those classes. The other mashup is... The thing that mashes into it is the idea of me wanting to do a chalk-based magic system where people draw cool things on the ground with chalk and then they do stuff. I played with these ideas, came up with an interesting sort of gearpunk setting for it, and wrote The Rithmatist which I hope you will all go check out. You can find it on Audible. How?
[Howard] Audible got [bludlepliddlewiddleblit!] Start a 30 day free trial membership and pick up The Rithmatist by... Brandon Sanderson.
[Dan] I think. Is that who wrote it?
[Brandon] They're trying to spell the bliddleblt... Is that with 2W's or three?
[Mary] There's a B and a P in there, too. Maybe an L?
[Howard] What happened is that you turned to me and said, "How..." I was waiting for the other syllable of my name.
[Dan] Very quickly, I want to put in my two cents for The Rithmatist. Because as a magical schoolbook, it is the only one I've ever read that delves so deeply into the science of the magic that it really feels like a school. Learning how the magic works is integral to the plot and is fascinating.
[Brandon] Well, thank you very much, Dan. I'll make sure to say nice things about your books.
[Dan] Ooh.

[Brandon] All right. So let's talk about the Anne McCaffrey style plot of books. Meaning where you write a book about some characters and then you decide, "Okay, I'm done with those. Let's build up something else in the world and tell a story about this." I've actually been planning to do this for Elantris for a long time.
[Mary] Me too.
[Brandon] Have you? You're going to write Elantris...
[Mary] Yes I am. You didn't know I was doing fanfic?
[Howard] Oh, man, I'm so looking forward to this.
[Mary] Elantris puppeteers.
[Dan] I have to admit I'd rather read Mary's Elantris sequel than yours.
[Howard] Aeons Of Milk and Honey or something? This is going to be so cool.
[Brandon] So tell me what you're planning to do with yours?
[Mary] Well, you go first.
[Brandon] All right. I'll go first. The idea for me that I want to do this is I told this story as this great stand-alone novel. I always leave openings so I can tell more, but I wanted to release Elantris as a standalone. My editor pushed me to do a sequel and I said, "No." He said, "You obviously left it open." I said, "Yes, I left it open, but I like releasing a standalone first, so that people can try me out on a standalone novel." The more I thought about it, the more I really liked how that book stood on its own. The issue comes to having these characters who have had great arcs through the story and have come to a natural conclusion, then saying, "But everyone wants more and everybody keeps pushing me to do more." This runs me into this problem where I don't want to take those characters and give them another artificial arc. Not another artificial, but give them another arc that would be artificial. In this case, it felt really wrong for me to do that. Particularly how wrapped up the ending was for those characters. So I said, "Well, if I'm going to do a sequel, it can't be about the main characters." That's spun me off into saying, "Who would I do it about then?" This was actually... I was thinking about these things in part as I was doing the edits for the book to come out. I started at that point to bring characters to the forefront as kind of like medium level characters that would draw people's attention in order to seed future characters should I end up wanting to do this in the future.
[Howard] You were auditioning them.
[Brandon] Yes, I was. I was. I didn't ever give them any viewpoints, but I thought, "If these people are interesting, people... Readers will ask questions about them, I'll keep thinking about them, and things like this." So I let myself kind of dabble in these side characters and give myself some ground to work in should I decide to do that sequel.
[Mary] Cool. I would like to read that when you finally get around to doing it. After I write my Elantris books.
[Brandon] That's right.

[Mary] So the thing that I was going to do is with the Jane and Vincent books... I'm planning on doing a five book cycle with them.
[Brandon] So am I!
[Mary] After... I would love to read that. Then after that, because I feel like there's only so far you can ratchet up somebody's life before the tension just becomes unbelievable. So I decided to... I'm going to set them aside after five books and let... And then do a three book series that is at a school for glamourists, run by Jane and Vincent. So they are secondary characters, which means that I have schoolgirls learning glamour, solving international intrigue, and being back in time for curfew. Going, "Oh, Mr. Vincent!"
[Howard] Oh, my gosh...
[Brandon] It's too bad you can't put that on the backs of the books. You can't push a button and have your exclamation...
[Howard] Mary? Mary? Three words. Manga tie in.
[Mary] Hee-hee-hee-hee.
[Dan] That does sound awesome.
[Howard] Oh, my.
[Mary] Part of the reason is because I feel like you have these characters and you like them, but the problem with being the main character in a novel is that your life sucks. Everything is going wrong, people are constantly trying to kill you, things just are terrible.
[Brandon] Well, there's the plausibility factor, too, right?
[Mary] Exactly. You also need time to reset them to zero. Time actually needs to pass. But the other reason to do this is that if you actually... Besides liking the characters and wanting to continue to explore them, if you have fans that want to see more of this, this is a way to give them more that is different.

[Brandon] Right. That's what the Anne McCaffrey books which you have... If you haven't read them, the initial Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders books all did this. As a new reader of science fiction and fantasy, I didn't know what to expect. I was really sad when the second book wasn't about the same characters, but they were there. Somehow, that actually made the books more awesome, because getting brand-new characters each time but knowing my favorite familiar characters were still there for me to see once in a while and to lean upon, made the series really click and connect for me. Since then, I've wanted to do something like this, just because I think it is a powerful form in the genre that isn't used quite enough.
[Mary] Yeah. It's one of the things that I loved also about Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century, that it was moving around but we got to see some of the same characters turning up, sometimes just in cameos, sometimes in main and secondary roles. John Scalzi's [Villi's Tale? Zoe's Tale?] is also a wonderful example of this.
[Brandon] Yes, it is.

[Howard] I think of this as the Star Trek: The Next Generation problem where by season seven, I'm looking at the cast there on the bridge and thinking, "Really? You people had careers and you never... Starfleet's big. You never moved to another ship? You always stayed first officer?" It just didn't make sense to me.
[Dan] The Next Generation writers felt that same problem, which is why in season six and seven they did multiple episodes focusing on the below decks people or these other people, background, Ensign Ro, people like that.

[Brandon] So let's wrap this up with going back to you, Howard, because you kind of inspired this. Do you envision ever taking the strip away from the main characters completely?
[Howard] Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. There's... There are several reasons for this. Reason number one, I don't think I can keep drawing forever, but I'm going to be able to keep writing a lot longer than I can do that. I would love to see what the Schlock Mercenary universe looks like under the hands of other people.
[Brandon] I'm up for grabs after I finish the five book sequence for Mary.
[Mary] I can do the drawing.
[Howard] We're going to need... I was going to say we're going to need to teach you to draw.
[Brandon] It worked for you.
[Howard] It did.
[Dan] Hey, Brandon used to do a web comic.
[Brandon] Oh... uh... No, don't go there.
[Mary] The link to that will be in the liner notes.
[Brandon] Three weeks. [Inaudible]
[Howard] So, short answer, yes. I have an end in mind for the mega-arc of Schlock Mercenary, after which point I will prune the cast significantly, bring in some new characters, choose carefully which of the old characters I'm bringing forward... Don't go thinking that we're going to have a red wedding or anything like that.
[Mary] We do green.
[Howard] This is not George RR Martin.
[Brandon] With Schlock, it will be brown.
[Dan] A brown wedding?
[Howard] Oh, man.
[Mary] Well, no, I think...
[Howard] This is going to a weird place.
[Brandon] I'm so tempted to make that our writing prompt.
[Howard] No. Please, no.
[Mary] I think it would be a poop green wedding.

[Brandon] Okay. That's right. What is our writing prompt? Well, it seems pretty obvious to me that your job is to take a minor character from a story you've already completed, somebody that seems shallow and not filled out, and tell their story. Make them as interesting as you can, perhaps even more interesting than the characters in the original story. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

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