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Who is the Robin to your novel's Batman?

Ah, sidekicks. Those indispensable minor characters who, if you do them right, can add life to a book or even threaten to steal the show. Sidekicks come in two basic forms: new friends and old friends. Each has different applications in story-craft.

Make new friends

Sidekicks are often new acquaintances for your main character. There is a lot to be said for these new friends. They give you many wonderful opportunities for showing your readers what your main character is all about. New friends can act as stand-ins for your reader. They learn about your protagonist at the same time your readers do. New friends also create opportunities for mystery and drama.

New friends mean new relationships. When a relationship starts, platonic or otherwise, both parties must share of themselves in order to build trust with the other. What they choose to share and how they share it speaks volumes. Is your main character warm and open with this new friend, inviting and generous with his or her time and attention? Or is your main character stand-offish, closed and guarded, seeming always to give the new sidekick the brush-off as quickly as possible? These types of personality traits, ones that have to do with how people treat one another, can be shown very clearly in watching a character develop a relationship with a new sidekick.

New friends are clueless. I don’t mean they’re stupid (and I hope they’re not), they’re simply not up to speed on your main character’s life. The sidekick hasn’t yet learned what the protagonist can do, what he knows, what he has been through, what practical and political realities matter to the protagonist’s life. This is wonderful, because it gives you natural opportunities to explain things to the reader while the protagonist is explaining it to the sidekick, without resorting to an infodump. If the reader truly needs to know that the bridge leading into town was built by a sleazy, lowball contractor, chances are the sidekick does too. And if the sidekick is a new friend from out of town, the protagonist has every reason in the world to explain it. It feels natural because, in that situation, it is.

But, as unknown as the new friend is to the protagonist, the reverse is also true. The protagonist starts out clueless about the sidekick. The sidekick must work to earn the protagonist’s trust and the reader’s trust as well. This gives you the delicious opportunity to create some drama and mystery, if that’s appropriate for your story, as the protagonist wonders whether the sidekick is on the up-and-up.

Especially in mysteries crime dramas, and other such mainstream genres, dangling the tantalizing possibility that a trusted sidekick might really be a spy, a mole, or a back-stabber can really ratchet up the drama in the book. In this situation, it is the protagonist who is the stand-in for the reader. That’s half the fun of reading an engaging novel, taking turns putting yourself into the shoes of different characters.

But keep the old

Old friends, sidekicks who are presumed to be well acquainted with the protagonist when the book starts, are tremendously useful but give you different options and challenges.

Old friends already have a rapport with your protagonist. They’ve been pals for a long time, so readers will naturally expect your protagonist to behave more openly and honestly with this type of sidekick. How your protagonist acts around his old friend—and how he interacts with that old friend—indicates his true personality. But be warned: it isn’t always easy to portray a well-established friendship because you, the writer, haven’t lived that particular relationship yourself. You have to invent and stay true to the myriad in-jokes and verbal shortcuts that old friends have with each other. Either that, or borrow these markers of deep friendship from your own life.

Old friends are also a smooth vehicle for revealing your protagonist’s backstory, because the old friend already knows it and can refer to it. Your old friends already know all your dirty laundry. Not only have they already seen the skeletons in your closet, they probably know how those bones got there. This means that in times when your protagonist is wrestling with a choice or trying to figure out how to proceed, the old friend can quite naturally bring up some relevant fact from the protagonist’s background. You can show this fact to the reader in the course of reminding the protagonist about it. Take care not to go overboard—the old friend will merely refer to this fact, he won’t recount the story in full detail. After all, the protagonist has his own memory of it. You need to keep the dialogue short and to the point; make it revealing without being overly explicit.

There is a danger with old friends, though: readers don’t know about them until you introduce them to the story. If you introduce a supposed old friend late in the story at a point where that friend’s influence or connections or resources are suddenly of critical importance to your protagonist, but the reader has never heard of this person before, it falls flat. It feels like a deus ex machina solution to a plot problem, rather than a character naturally calling on his network of friends and acquaintances in time of need.

Old friends can present a problem for writers, because on the one hand people do have old friends who they are very close to, but who they may only see on rare occasions. Never the less, these old friends still have strong connections to us through our past. The same is presumably true for any protagonist who is old enough to have a past.

For example, if I needed a piece of legal advice I could call up my friend Mike from High School, who I haven’t seen in quite some time. He’d probably take my call and help me out. But if an observer in the story of my life had no idea Mike existed, this would be a surprising and too-convenient thing for me to do. The observer—and your reader—will be much less surprised and much more likely to believe this had Mike been introduced earlier in the story.

It’s a fine line between introducing the friend early and often enough so as to be believable when the need for that friend’s help arises, while not giving that friend so much screen time throughout the story that you telegraph the friend’s ultimate importance. You have to be believable, without undermining the drama.

One is silver, and the other gold

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but relationships can be a big bay window to the personality. Use sidekicks, whether new friends or old, and the relationships they have to your protagonists to show readers what makes your protagonists tick.

March 05, 2010 20:03 UTC

Tags: character, sidekicks, relationships, trust, backstory, infodumps, batman, robin

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Three ways relationships can reveal your characters

Characters are never alone. You ever notice that? Abbot had Costello, Lucy had Ricky, Holmes had Watson, and Gilligan had The Skipper. Why is this? Psychologically it’s because people are social creatures. We go better together. Some part of us needs to be able to share our thoughts and feelings with others. But as writers, we create sidekicks and foils because relationships are a marvelous tool for revealing your characters.

Even characters who seem alone, aren’t. There’s always a sidekick, even if it isn’t human. Tom Hanks, in Cast Away, had his volleyball. Bruce Dern’s character in the Sci-Fi classic Silent Running had three cute little robots with him. And of course, Keir Dullea’s murderous computer nemesis in 2001: A Space Odyssey needs no explanation at all. Those characters’ sidekicks weren’t people, but they still provided a relationship that revealed a lot about the character.

You could probably write a whole book on this, but let me instead just give three highlights, three quick methods for using relationships to show what kind of people your characters are.

Use shared or borrowed goals

Any time you have one character seeking to enter the good graces of another, it can work well to have that character adopt as his own something that is a goal for the other character. You might have your love-struck hero take up volunteering at an animal shelter, because he learns that the girl he’s sweet on has a soft spot for homeless animals. He might even adopt a sad, mangy dog, despite his own allergies (they’ve got pills for that, right?) just to impress her.

Although this technique is particularly apt for unrequited love, it works for other situations too. Not long ago, I finished Michael Snyder’s book Return Policy, in which there’s a sub-plot about one character seeking to land a promotion by voluntarily taking on a tedious, boring data entry job that everyone else in her office has been avoiding. It means longer hours, time away from her son, but she knows it will make her manager look good and hopes it will tip the scales toward her.

Let relationships reveal deeper motivations

Relationships always have levels to them. For example, you might have a character who is always creating little competitions between himself and his friends. His notion is that he’s creating opportunities for fun and that this will make people like him. How he reacts says a lot: is he gracious in victory and defeat, or obnoxious in victory and a sore loser to boot? How his friends react should be very telling, too: are they in fact having fun, or are they annoyed? It’s this interaction between the characters that is your vehicle for showing the primary character’s competitive streak. How the relationship plays out on the page says everything.

Or going back to the love-struck mangy dog owner, while that behavior may seem sweet and fawning at first, there’s a darker side lurking underneath. It is ultimately selfish: he doesn’t actually care about the dog, except to the extent that the dog can help win him the girl. And how disrespectful he must be of her, if he thinks she’s dumb enough to be manipulated in that way, or that she won’t see right through him. Does he even actually love her for herself? If he’s so willing to alter his outward image—and mask his inward nature—to impress her, perhaps he is more attracted to his outward image of her than to the person she is underneath.

The levels inherent in any relationship are a great source of surprises. Affection can mask selfishness. Competition can mask self-importance. Actions that seem driven by one motive can, in fact, be hiding a deeper and completely opposite motive. Revealing those deeper motives can make for wonderful dramatic reversals. It’s the best way to surprise a reader, by letting them learn something new about your characters that they didn’t necessarily expect.

Show multiple points of view

Finally, as I wrote last month, nobody sees themselves the same as other people see them. If your story has multiple POV characters, you can readily exploit this to show the contrast. For example, the competitive boy sees his competitive habit as an attempt to create fun between himself and his friends. But his friends, who have grown weary of seeing who can throw a crumpled napkin into the trash can from the farthest away, see it as something else: annoying egotism.

There’s an opportunity with multiple POVs, though, that goes deeper than simply showing a contrast between some character’s self-opinion and how others see him, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss out on. Try to show the contrast in a way that creates mystery rather than solves it. That is to say, when you’re done showing both parties’ view of the situation, have you left the reader wondering who is right?

If so, you have a wonderful opportunity to also create a great dramatic reversal: Solve the mystery a few chapters later by springing yet another layer on the reader, revealing that nobody is right! Reveal that he’s not as fun-loving as he thinks he is, but neither is he as egotistic as his friends think. Rather, they’re both wrong: deep down he’s just insecure. Beyond the fun-and-games facade, underneath the ego, he creates all these competitive situations because really he’s struggling to reassure himself of his own abilities.

It’s not a meaningless reversal, of course. It’s not there just to keep the reader guessing. To really work, it had better be part of a meaningful character arc. But I hope that at least gives you gives a taste of how these strategies—just like people—go better together than alone.

November 09, 2009 21:50 UTC

Tags: character, relationships, Michael Snyder, goals, reversals

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Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?

Ask anybody in this business whether you should use a lot of passive voice sentences in your writing, and they’ll say “No, of course not.” Ask them why, though, and you’re likely to hear only vague and useless answers:

“It’s awkward.” “It’s boring.” “It’s emotionally cold.” “It’s dry and academic.”

That’s all true, but none of it helps you understand the real problem. Here’s the real answer:

Passive voice hides your characters from view.

It’s really that simple. Novels are about characters doing things. Passive voice shifts the focus of the writing away from the characters and onto the things they’re doing, or the things they’re using to do whatever it is they’re doing. Check this out:

Bread was placed on the counter. Two slices, whole wheat. Peanut butter was spread on the left, jelly on the right. The halves were joined, and inserted together into a baggie. The sandwich, along with a shiny red apple and thermos of milk, was packed into the shiny, new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, with a folded paper towel for a napkin.

The lunchbox was handed to its intended recipient. A rosy smooth cheek was presented for an obligatory, if not entirely welcomed, kiss. The door was opened, and the new school year was begun.

That’s an extreme example, but I’ve seen people write like this. I’ve seen whole novels written almost entirely in this style. The problem with passive voice is that it’s great for saying what happened, but absolutely lousy at saying who did it or how they did it. It hides the characters. And in doing so, it hides all the warmth. All the emotion. It undermines any sense of the relationships between people.

I made those paragraphs the best I could—adding colorful details here and there—but they’re still awful. In those two paragraphs, where’s the mother’s love? Where’s the child’s mixture of anticipation and trepidation? Where are anyone’s feelings about anything? Oh, here they are:

Sam watched as his mother made a PB&J sandwich. Use the grape, Sam thought. He smiled as she took the purple jar out of the fridge. She packed the sandwich into his new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, taking care that it wouldn’t get squished by the apple or the thermos of milk. She closed it with a tinny, metallic snap.

“Here you go, Sam,” she said, handing him his lunch. She bent down to kiss his cheek. Sam squirmed a little but smiled anyway, secretly glad he wasn’t too old for it. “Run and catch the bus now!” Sam held her eyes for a moment, then ran out the door to begin the new school year.

The active voice version is very clear about who is doing what, and how they’re doing it. That much is obvious. But what is most interesting to me is the source of that improvement. The very process of writing in the active voice focuses my attention as a writer in a different and altogether better place: On the characters.

I had intended to write a straight, sentence-for-sentence version changing nothing but the grammatical voice. But I couldn’t. As soon as I typed “Sam watched,” I was forced to wonder not about the minutia of sandwich making (which happens all too easily when writing in passive voice), but instead about what Sam was thinking, feeling, and hoping: Duh, he’s hoping his mom will choose his favorite kind of jelly.

Having raised the question of which jelly she’ll use, I have to answer it, which forces me to wonder about the mom’s state of mind. Because she’s his mom and knows him and loves him and wants his first day to be a good one, it was obvious to me that she’d pick the grape. Her love and concern shows in her choice, in her ability to read her son’s mind. We see Sam feel that love when he smiles about it.

Similarly, I was forced to consider how she packs the lunch. Again, love and concern makes her do it in a specific and intentional manner. She doesn’t just cram it all in and slam the lid. Writing in active voice forces me to consider how—not just what—someone is doing, which in turn gives me an opportunity to show, rather than merely tell.

The simple decision to write in active voice forced me to focus on my characters. It forced me to focus on the people, rather than the objects.

It’s the characters who are interesting. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t interesting except to the extent that it has anything to do with the characters. In passive voice, the sandwich is just a sandwich. Boring. In active voice, the sandwich conveys the relationship between the characters. That’s interesting.

Relationships between characters are what we love to read and see. Passive voice writing withers on the vine precisely because it hides that from view. In so doing, passive voice encourages authors to be lazy and to focus on the entirely dull objects and events of the story.

It takes work to figure out how characters feel about everything, and how those feelings shape people’s actions. Active voice forces writers to do that work. It forces us to focus on the interesting characters of our stories and the fascinating relationships driving them.

September 03, 2009 23:49 UTC

Tags: passive voice, active voice, character, show, tell, show don't tell, Lightning McQueen, lunchbox, apple, sandwich, peanut butter, jelly, school, relationships, writing

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