Monday, January 04, 2010

We don't need another hero... do we?

I recently wrote a chapter in WILLA in which an important secondary character is introduced, and his prior relationship to my female protagonist is explored a bit. By the time I finished the chapter, I was so enamored of this new character I was feeling unfaithful to my male protagonist! Which raised a question in my mind.

QUESTION: What does an author do when a secondary character looks to be out-heroing the hero of her current WIP?

ANSWER: If reasoning with him, promising him his own book if he behaves himself in this one, and outright pleading fail to reduce him to more manageable stature... go ahead and let him give being the hero his best shot. Don't hold him back.

Why? I think it will make for a better story in the end by forcing me to make my male protagonist's character arc that much stronger. We need to give our characters seriously intimidating obstacles to overcome to reach their goals and see their hopes and desires fulfilled, right? Otherwise we have a flat, ho-hum story.

Donald Maas (agent, teacher, author of THE FIRE IN FICTION) instructs writers to "make it worse" for our characters. A likeable secondary character who is a rival for a love interest, or a job position, or whatever it is the hero or heroine wants, is as great an obstacle as an antagonist who is actively working against the character.

Many of my favorite stories are peopled with strong secondary characters who don't quite steal the spotlight from the main ones, but come awfully close at times, causing me to wonder just who is going to win out (that's unpredictability, a good thing in a novel). They also leave me thinking of them long after the book is finished and put on the shelf. A recent example is Laura Frantz's THE FRONTIERSMAN'S DAUGHTER.

So my secondary character can be as heroic as he wants to be, and may he stretch me as a storyteller in the process.

Ever had a secondary character loom larger than your hero or heroine? How did you handle it? Did it change the story you were telling, or were you able to keep them in their proper place? Did you go on to write a book just for them?


  1. Interesting observations, Lori. In one of my stories the antagonist becomes the hero in the sequel. Their is animosity between the previous hero and this new hero. I hope it leaves the readers wondering if the new hero can hold his own, if he is truly redeemable. I cannot diminish the previous hero and he maintains a strong position so it gives me a challenge. I like the way that story plays out. I think it is actually much stronger and more intense.

  2. Carla, that does sound like a challenge, but in a good way. Sounds like it will make for a complex and multi-layered story, and for characters who are intriguing shades of gray. Not easy to write, but worth the work!

  3. I hope so, we have to be careful sometimes or those characters can become pretty headstrong. LOL!

  4. Lori, I feel in love with this post (even before I got to the part about TFD)! Thank you for that. Really like the quote by Donald M. A likeable secondary character/rival does provide a fine foil, sinking the reader into the story a little deeper and upping the element of tension and unpredictability. No formulaic fiction here:)
    I can't wait to meet all your leading men:) May they delight and entertain you today!

  5. Laura,

    I think it's important to have secondary characters that the reader sympathizes with, that are likeable, yet don't always see eye-to-eye with the hero/protagonist. Or perhaps are outright opposed to them on some issue. It gives main characters more depth, makes them more realistic, and adds a lot of complexity to any story situation.

    At least it did for KINDRED. One character in particular, who had several valid points to make and wasn't shy about making them, had me pulling my hair out on more than one occasion as Ian and I argued him back. And in the end, who was proved right? I'm not saying.

    I'm hoping to put myself through the same torture *s* with WILLA.