We don’t write books alone. We need great teams to help us bring our projects to life. That doesn’t only apply to the finishing touches: editing, proofreading, and design. We need a great cast of characters to keep readers turning the pages.
Character building dictates how your story is going to turn out, even more than the plot. The same scenario can get thrown at a group of characters, but will the outcome be the same for each one of them? Probably not. Their personalities, interests, experiences, hopes, wishes, and dreams will help them choose their path. Even more important are the people who your characters call upon to help them reach the finish line of the book.
These are your secondary characters. They help shape the book, but they don’t drive the plot. The plot revolves around the main characters, and the secondary characters support the main characters.
Making these characters three dimensional is just as important as fleshing out your main characters. Why? Secondary characters make the story believable. Your main characters rely on these secondary people for some reason, and you want to make sure that these supporting characters ass to the story and make it more interesting.
So how do you do it? I come from a film background, and I’ve done character sketches like an actor would get for a movie role to learn who my characters are. I do this for all main and secondary characters. It’s a stream of consciousness type brainstorm where I write down personality traits and opinions that character has. They might tell me how they know the other characters, what they think of them, or what they want out of this story. They might tell me they like strawberry ice cream on a hot day. All of it tells me something about these people.
I rely on dialogue. Heavily. It’s extremely important that a reader knows who is talking, even if you don’t use dialogue tags. Each character should have a way of speaking that is unique to them. This will help you define their body language, and if you haven’t done a character sketch, it might answer some of your questions about that character. Always ask questions. How. Why. Where. What. Who.
Give these characters motives! Everyone wants something. Everyone has opinions. That includes the supporting cast. Do they want the same thing as your MC? Are they willing to help her get it? Do they have their own agenda? How did they wind up in the story?
Interesting people don’t always make sense. I’m going to paraphrase Donald Maas about character development. Give your characters quirks. Make sure you mention them. Have your characters do things that are outside of the box. For example, if you have a character who is a vegetarian, give them leather boots. People don’t always tell the truth, or put all their cards on the table. This should be true for your characters as well.
In NIGHT MOVES, my main character, Melanie, reconnects with her best friend from childhood, Erin, out on tour with a has-been rock band. Erin’s working as a travelling fetish model to support herself out on tour with Soul Divider, a job suggested to her by Drake Bonham, the guy she’s seeing when his wife isn’t around.
I followed Erin’s routine for the rest of the concert. Our dance floor had closed in a bit, as people tired of watching our show and went back to viewing the one they paid to see. After the band took their final bow, a group of girls lingered near the stage, presumably pleading with the roadies to help them meet the band.
“They’re so stupid.” Erin threw her legs over mine. We were back in the booth, finishing off our drinks. The band usually did some sort of meet and greet after the show, so there was no need to hurry back to the bus.
Only three days into this and the bus already felt like a coffin. Windowless, airless, cramped. Of course, I was traveling with the living dead, so it made sense. Maybe Erin didn’t have it so bad in her own car. At least she could open a window.
“Hey, Erin!” A skinny, pretty girl in an off the shoulder T-shirt and torn jeans approached the table, flanked by three of her nervous looking friends.
“What’s up, Catelyn?” Erin’s body language screamed for this girl to go away louder than the fake smile she plastered on her face. “Great show, huh?”
“As always.” Catelyn looked at me, trying to figure out how I played into things. “We were just wondering if you knew about any after parties or anything.”
“Now why would I know something like that?” Erin sat up straighter. I couldn’t tell if she was offended or surprised.
“Well, you know, since you and Drake—”
Erin leaned forward, placing her hand over Catelyn’s. “Drake and I are just friends. Nothing else. I don’t know what he does. I’m just spending time with my girlfriend, like you ladies are. You know, girls’ night out.” There was a bite to her words.
Catelyn’s friends looked at each other, sharing disappointment and maybe a little disbelief. Whatever it was, they weren’t getting what they wanted at this table.
“Right, girls’ night,” Catelyn repeated, her face falling a little. “Have fun, ladies.”
The group left us to our own devices.
“Who the hell were they?”
Erin fell back, drink still in hand, rolling her eyes. “Oh they’re Soul Divider super fans. I’d call them groupies, but even Tommy won’t touch them. The band hides when they see them. They’re so pathetic. They’ll sit outside anywhere they think the band is, for hours.”
“Like we used to do?”
“Fuck no. Mel, we were never pathetic. Those girls are in their thirties. I think some of them still live at home. This is all they’ve got. I mean, at least we have reaped rewards for our hard work. They must love being frustrated. Unless they’re doing one of the roadies, gross, they certainly aren’t getting anything here.”
“Maybe that’s not what they want.”
“What the hell else would a bunch of cougars follow a band around for? I mean, don’t they want their fantasy to come true? After five or so years following them around like pathetic little puppy dogs, they should have moved up from the meet and greet line or moved on.”
“Well–” I don’t know why I felt like I should defend these girls I didn’t even know, but for some reason, I kind of felt bad for them. They obviously wanted something. From somebody. “Maybe this is their fantasy. And there are five guys in the band, and how many women trying to get in their pants? Not everyone can be successful. If everyone could have them, no one would want them.”
“I guess you’re right.” Erin slid out of the booth and smoothed her denim mini skirt. “But it’s still pathetic. I’m going to call it a night. I have a shoot in the morning.”
As much as she loves Melanie, she’s got to look out for herself. And that means keeping Drake happy. Even if it hurts Melanie.
“I know. And it pisses me off. But I was stupid, and I have no one to blame but myself.” Ryder sounded so far away. “When I say I’ll take care of it, I mean it. But I need you to do something for me, too.”
“What?” I sat up, still hugging the pillow.
“I think you need to cut ties with Erin for a little while.”
“What? No. You can’t be serious. She’s been my friend for eleven years. We grew up together. She’s all that’s left of my life before I met you. You can’t ask me to walk away from her. That’s too much.”
I could see the outline of his body tense. “Not forever. Just for a little while. Everything you tell her goes back to Drake. She will pick him over you, every time. When she first started coming to the shows—”
“When she first started going to the shows, she was with me! In high school!” I shrieked. I couldn’t help myself. He didn’t know what he was talking about. This was my friend, my life.
He started again. “When she first started spending time with Drake, she had some other girl with her. She was cute, and hung out with Adam sometimes. But Erin left her in the dust, because Drake told her to. Why? I don’t know, besides he likes to be in control. She only cares about the blood.”
“I’m not some random traveling groupie! Jesus Christ, I spent Christmas at her house while my mom worked! She knows where she stands with Drake. You do the same exact thing with Drake. I bet you’d let him have your blood if he demanded.”
“It doesn’t mean she likes it.” Ryder’s voice was firm, the icy chill of my words hanging in the air between us. “I already told the guys not to bring her back here. You’ve got to back away from her. At least until everything settles down. She’s not helping you. She’s helping Erin.”
My eyes filled with more tears. I knew deep down inside, Ryder was right. Every single thing I told her in confidence had made its way back to Drake, which he promptly used against me. But I didn’t want to believe it. I knew Erin was smarter than this. I wanted to believe her when she said she was just having fun with Drake. But how could she set her emotions aside?
Information on me and Ryder was the only leverage she had with Drake. A smokin’ hot body and barely any inhibitions, too. But at the end of the day, he wasn’t going home to her.
She was selling me down the river. She was no better than Drake or Catelyn. I would never, ever do this to her. I would have done anything to keep her safe.
But I’d disappeared out of her life for the last two years, too. I’d be resentful about that if I was her. I just expected everything to pick up as we’d left off when I was in college, like she was still an assistant manager at the local mall.
We weren’t those girls anymore. We were both harder and hopefully wiser. At least more savvy.
I hated that. I wanted Erin the way I saw her, the way I remembered her. Not what she’d become.
I bet she felt the same way about me.
I realize that these excerpts don’t make Erin the most likeable girl, but there’s a lot of good in her that unfolds throughout the book. I used these examples to show Erin working against Melanie, or even contracting herself. If everyone agreed about everything, there would be no conflict in your book. Even the characters that can be put in the “good” category need to have complexities to add the element of surprise to make your story memorable.