Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why Writers Should Read, II

I finished the challenge!

I read a book in two weeks. Couldn't have done it without my fabulous accountability partner during the challenge: Beth Vogt. A small caveat--she finished her book first.

If you finished your book from the two week challenge, you might need a reminder what to do next. In a nutshell: consider manipulating the plot, twisting, turning, tugging, and smoothing to form a new plot story idea for your writing reservoir. For more details, here is the link to part one of my Why Writers Should Read Series.

Today, whether you finished the book for the first challenge or not, start fresh.

Writers who read meet many new characters who are vibrant, sinister, sweet, passive, aggressive, dorky, mysterious, graceful, snobby, contagious, cruel, empathetic, and etc.

Some characters are round, no reference to physical, these are the main characters. Some characters are flat, these are the secondary characters. Both are essential to stories.

We've had a lot of training with main characters, (round characters) here on the Alley. Check the label list on the side to read past Alley Cat posts for helpful tips.

Being the rebel that I am, I chose to focus on the flat character today. These poor, essential, rarely in the limelight characters provide key components without which entire books would flop. Over the top? Perhaps. Then again, maybe not.

Flat characters fill in holes, explain the whys, serve a small but essential purpose. We don't need to know everything about this character, but we do need him/her to complete a section of the plot puzzle.

At one of the Montana ACFW meetings, one member shared an aha moment. A scene from her story didn't work. She changed pieces, added dialogue and spruced description.  Nothing helped until she realized she needed to add a character. The new character served one purpose, to move the pickle scene forward. Suddenly her words flowed, action revived, pacing soared, the scene felt complete.

Flat characters add a great deal of importance. Often a well placed flat character can earn a starring role as a main character in a future book. Readers become intrigued with the seemingly small character who piqued their interest.

One of the many flat characters in Gone with the Wind was Prissy. SparkNotes describes her as "A squeaky-voiced house slave. Silly, squeamish, and inclined to exaggeration, Prissy is the film’s comic relief."

In this case, Prissy's character eased tension in the plot, without slowing the pace. She provided a pendulum swing for reader's emotions by pulling them from a tense, sad moment into vibrant humorous scenes.

Deeanne Gist, author of' Love on the Line inserted Duane as an essential flat character. Duane is a gun slingin' gang member who won my heart with his humor and spunk. He became essential by filling a hole in one scene the MCs could not. Sure would be nice if Deanne spun a book around Duane. hint hint Deanne

Dos and Don'ts for Flat Characters

Do use flat characters sparingly in your story. (re presence)
Do use flat characters to meet/accomplish a temporary need. (re task)
Do give a missing component of the story to the flat character (comic relief, spunk, etc)
Do give only one trait to the flat character. (timid strong sense of responsibility)

Don't develop the flat character (wastes story space needed for MC)
Don't assign heroic tasks to flat character
Don't assign antagonist task to the flat character
Don't let the flat character steal the scene from the MC
Don't let the MC watch the flat character. (The doer is always the MC)
Don't let the flat character improve-resolve-change

Is there a hole, a jagged scene, an uneasy sense to a scene in your WIP. Would adding a flat character sprinkle spice into your story?

Your challenge: read a book in the next two weeks. Should you chose to play with me--volunteer to be my accountability partner. You can leave your email address in the comment section or email me: That means we have two weeks. In this newly read book, search for flat characters and determine their contribution to the book.

sample: Cinderella. What essential role did Cinderella's father play? (Comment your answer)

The purpose of this challenge is to discover essential flat characters, how they impact a book, fill in gaps, provide essential components, and etc. Are you willing to rise to the challenge? Ready? Go.

Come back in two weeks with a book read, or in the process of being read for our discussion of the third benefit Why Writers Should Read

P.S. I am borrowing this quote posted by Fay Lamb on the ACFW General Crit Loop Most beginning writers (and I was the same) are like chefs trying to cook great dishes that they've never tasted themselves. How can you make a great (or even an adequate) bouillabaisse if you've never had any? If you don't really understand why people read mysteries (or romances or literary novels or thrillers or whatever), then there's no way in the world you're going to write one that anyone wants to publish. (This is the meaning of the well-known expression "Write what you know.")  ~Daniel Quinn

Please consider this opportunity to nominate The Writer's Alley 

for the 101 Best Websites for writers.
Just send an email to 
during the month of April

This blog post is by Mary Vee
Mary lives in Montana with her husband and loves to hear from her three college kids. She writes Christian young adult fiction (pirate tales, missionary and Bible adventure stories).

Come Step into Someone Else's World with Mary's writing

To learn more about Mary, visit her blog


Beth K. Vogt said...

Loved being your accountability partner in this read-a-thon, Mary.
Let's do it again!
I'm concentrating on two books: Dani Pettrey's Submerged & Olivia Newport's The Pursuit of Lucy Banning - both women are my fellow "Debs" along with Katie Ganshert. (Meaning we all have May debut novels.)
I've read Katie's debut novel (wonderful!) and now am on to the other two novels.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

You are so clever! I love that you chose to focus on secondary characters - I never knew there was so much to learn! Great tips.

Candi said...

Sometimes it helps to have someone like you to point out what should be the obvious to us newer writers! I love to get your insights into stories and words, Mary. I've found that writing has become my favorite form of recreation. Thank you for sharing your "writing wisdom" with us to glean from friend. Keep it up!

Embrace said...

I really enjoyed your list on secondary characters. I added it to my great tips file.
I am reading a book for this challenge. It is Out of Control by Mary Connealy.
I've been thinking about the Cinderella question. I may be off base but I think the father's role was to set the stage for where her confidence would come from. If she had never been loved and cherished than she would not have been able to accept the love of the prince. So Dad's role was to show the foundation that had been laid in her life - essentially back story I guess??? (But I may be wrong.)

Casey said...

Never really thought of it in that light, Mary. Great points.

I can't think of a better accountability partner than Beth! :)

Lindsay Harrel said...

Great tips. I think it's hard to know how deep to go with a secondary character, but they're definitely important to include!

Anonymous said...

Mary, I'm in on the challenge. I actually read at least one book (Beth's Wish You Were Here) in the two week span. :)(BTW, it's a must read!)

Okay, Cinderella's story. I would imagine the sisters could kind of be flat characters. It's been awhile since I've read/considered the story. :) But, in some ways, they lighten the tension with their behaviors.

Great post today. It's definitely a keeper for me. :)

Joanne Sher said...

This is SOOO good, Mary! Never EVER thought of flat characters this way. Very helpful.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

ooooooooooo weeeeeeeee its been a busy morning at work. Gonna scratch down some quick thank you responses 'cause I care about y'all so much (an I'm not even southern!)

I'm so glad you'll be an accountability partner. Talk about overachiever...2 books? Hmm. You're raising the bar.

I've got a special spot in my heart for the ones least noticed. And secondary characters fit the calling today.

Writing is my recreation as well. I'm so weird I take my lap top in the car for long trips and rat-a-tat the time away while talking with those in the car. Don't yah hate multi-taskers?


Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

The father existed to create the Crucible. The environment that made the story happen (i.e., the cruel women unavoidable).

I appreciate the list of don'ts for flat characters AND- btw- the implicit *permision* for flat characters.

Before this point I have never heard that description of what they are: useful without stealing teh limelight.

One of the biggest problems of my first novel is that the amount of time I've lived with it (5 years) has resulted in too many "well rounded" characters, resulting in a painful juggling act and questions of who to "let" have the stage.

I like this idea of selecting (creating) characters with specific holes to fill.

I don't know if I can follow the rule about not letting the flat character "improve-resolve-change," but maybe that's because I'm still stuck on the distinction between main, major and minor characters.

(My Hero is a Beta-male, his best friend the Alpha. Simply by his role as the Alpha (and BF), I think he has to be able to change or I'd doubt my Hero's sense/quality in keeping him around... But then, maybe best-friends are automatically a step above flat...?)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

You are on my list for accountability for this next challenge. Good luck.
I like your Cinderella answer. I have a feeling there is more than one. And yours is among the top.

One idea I thought of: The dad is the one who brought the step mother and daughters into the house, unknowing the result. However, if he had not, the terrible situation requiring a resolution would not have been set up.

Any other ideas?

Embrace said...

Ahh! I hadn't thought of the obvious reason Mary. I was digging deep in my brain cells to find something deep. However you are so right ... without the father marrying the step mother there would be no story. As well, if he hadn't died then the story would be totally different. Now the wheels are going ...

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Amy Jane,
The crucible is a great way to describe the father. I think you and I were keying our answers at the same time, because I didn't see yours, and yet our answers were very similar. Awesome!

As for the characters, think of the main characters as an object that floats on top of the water. Ever present, seen, included. The secondary characters are needed, but are hidden under the surface. Essential only for a time.

Think of the father in Cinderella. He did not change, develop, improve, resolve, etc. Yet he ended up being the foundation to the whole story.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Regarding knowing how far to go with secondary characters, consider, again the father in Cinderella. His presence was short yet it stood out like a red dot on a white sheet of paper. Development was not necessary for his role to be accomplished.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Jeanne T
I look forward to keeping tabs with you during our next challenge.
I agree with you about the sisters being flat. There is not change in their personalities, their character is not developed, they didn't resolve to change, their presence was minimal. Good choice.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks. I so glad you stopped by today.:)

Ruth Douthitt said...

Good points! I'll have to go through my WIP and assessed my flat characters. Thank you for the tips!!

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

No problem, Ruth. So glad you stopped by today. :)

Pepper said...

Great post, Mary
And I just finished reading a book last night. Jamie Carie's release, The Guardian Duke.
Btw , I think Cinderella's dad helped Cinderella develop the sweet personality she had - SOMEBODY must be responsible for her longsuffering personality and gentleness.
Or she got her good looks from him.
Something :-)

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Great job finishing The Guardian Duke.
Yeah, I agree about Cinderella. Both ideas are good. The dad played a much bigger role, than I thought of and I think today's readers as well.

Great discussion all:)