Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The magic of characters–including co-stars

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 03•20

Long after the intricacies of a fictional plot fade from a reader’s memory, the characters linger with an almost physical presence, a twinkle of personality, unforgettable actions, and their happy or sad fates. Fictional characters whisper their secrets, allow us to witness their most intimate moments and sorrows, and trust us with their messy emotions, bad decisions, and longings. They penetrate our aloneness, populate our imagination by starring in our inner cinema, and slip their hands in ours and transport us to another place, another time. And while all this is going on, often they teach us what it means to be human complete with all the troubles, heartaches, and mysteries.

Characters that leave a lasting footprint in our memory range the gamut from stuck-on-themselves divas and difficult drama queens, to aging Italian billionaires and lonely singletons, along with knights and spies and waifs and dwarfs. It’s simple really: Character, not plot, is what chiefly interests the reader because he translates and feels the character’s actions, desires, and passions from his own data bank of experiences and emotions.

This is the opening to my book Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction. However, the book isn’t only about ‘bad guys’. It covers character roles and types including protagonists,  heroes,  unlikable protagonists, unreliable narrators, and a slew of information to add to  your understanding.

I’ve been thinking about my book and all I’ve learned since I wrote it,  because I’m creating a presentation on secondary characters for a virtual workshop I’m teaching next week at the Chanticleer Author’s Conference. {schedule is here} Before I delve into techniques for creating secondary characters, I’m explaining the roles, hierarchy, development, and purposes of fictional players. Because the more you know about the many uses for characters –the enormous scope and weight they can bring to a story–the more tools you wield when playing God.

When I wrote my Bullies book as I sometimes call it, my main objective was to urge writers to take risks with their characters. To use shills and scapegoats and flamboyant  loudmouths. Demon  lovers, homicidal stalkers, criminal politicians.  Stir in trolls,  punks, bad asses, weirder-than-weird nerds, smarter-than-smart geeks, callous grifters, hard-to-believe they’re so foul-mouthed not-so-sweet old ladies.

Bring it on.

The same is true for your supporting cast. Sure you’ll add bit players, stock players, and archetypal players. Royals, innocents, mentors, warriors, and confidants. Burned-out cops, cranks, frenemies,   crappy stepparents, and obnoxious neighbors. Familiar types with many valid, solid uses in storytelling.

Creating co-stars can be one of the great joys of storytelling. They can be outrageous, hilarious, freaky, maddening, sex-driven, drug-addled, and vapid. They can lie, steal, betray, enchant, and embolden. They sometimes get the best lines, spout the best snark. Give the best shade. They can drive their co-stars crazy and they can also drive the plot. They can star in their own subplots and often support the protagonist’s goals. Or thwart the protagonist’s goals. Or lie about supporting the protagonist while actually backstabbing the poor sod.

But like protagonists and antagonists, they can never be dull or commonplace. Never a pale footnote. Never thinly sketched unless the character has a walk-on part. But even bit players can possess physical characteristics. A lisp. A limp. An arresting voice. Inappropriate wardrobe choices and whisky breath.

I’m having a lot of fun thinking about this topic. Does it show?

As I’ve mentioned last month, I’m teaching four workshops and details are here.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Oh, and PLEASE vote.

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