I have been stuck on my manuscript for weeks. I wish I could say this is an anomaly, but I’ve been here before. I’m usually quite disciplined at the beginning, writing in consecutive order and making sure my plot is moving forward. Then, in the last fifteen percent of the novel, the train starts smoking and the engine fails and the wheels fall off and my work in progress becomes a fat hunk of metal lying upside down begging for mercy. Often, when I’m at the end, I write stand-alone scenes and backwards plan to try and bring all the pieces together. I also have three POV characters in this story, which is tough given the limited amount of space and time to address all their complex subplots. But my biggest problem was revealed in an ah-ha moment when I was talking it through with my critique partner. I realized some of my secondary characters, the most important people in my protagonists’ lives, were so thin you could almost see through them.
I had to sit back and look critically at my manuscript. I considered a character’s husband Travis and asked myself, what does he like to do? I had no answer. He had some basic characteristics, a job, some mannerisms, a family history, but he didn’t rise off the page. He wasn’t interesting on his own. I found the same problem with AJ, who didn’t have fleshed out goals and existed almost as a buttress to hold the main character up. Both of them were paper dolls, human-like but not all the way, with tabbed outfits to hook around them when the situation called for a costume.
It wasn’t working.
One of the hardest things about this story is it deals almost exclusively with interpersonal relationships. There aren’t any big action scenes and I don’t have an external conflict within the world cranking pressure down against them. I’ve had to get granular with my characters in a way I haven’t before. I’ve gone deep into their history to dredge up some thing that happened in middle school lunch that stuck with them, changed them. To me, this story is personal because these characters have gotten personal with me–extremely, in some cases. I sometimes feel like their therapist, coaxing out the truth when they skirt around it. And though I’ve worked to sculpt my main characters and a few loud supporting characters into realistic, 3D people (lookin’ at you, Dillon Wakefield), I have others who are just… there. In order for my story to feel complete, I need to do my due diligence and take more time to understand them.
The people who move in and out of our lives are part of our fabric. They influence us, change our moods, shape our opinions. They serve different roles and we turn to them to meet specific needs. One of the key elements of my story is about the perception the characters have of the people around them. These characters are all related in some way, whether familial or through an outside relationship, and they all hold differing views on one another. It’s easy to forget that secondary characters play the leads in their own stories, and it isn’t fair for them to exist as avatars for main characters to project upon. I’ve seen it in movies and TV shows, and it’s especially glaring when an unbaked side character dies. I guess the audience is supposed to feel something, but there hasn’t been enough development to make anyone care or have any emotional impact.
This also goes for children and pets, who are sometimes an afterthought relegated to the background and simply exist without having much impact on the lives of the main characters. As much as I love the show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I’m always left wondering who takes care of the children and why they don’t seem to matter to Midge in any critical way.
If you’re on the struggle bus wondering why something isn’t working in your story, look at the supporting cast surrounding your main character(s). Are they interesting? Do they have their own goals and ambitions? What about their personality could ratchet up tension and conflict or even prevent your main character from achieving their goals? Sometimes it helps to combine two underdeveloped characters into one to simplify the story.
Now I’m off to go wrestle some info out of my quieter side characters– except you, Wakefield. You’re getting your own novel. Settle down and take a number.