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Posts from the ‘Characters’ Category

The Importance Of Secondary Characters In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

Secondary characters in a novel are as important as the primary characters. Like the vegetables accompanying a piece of grilled steak, they provide colour, fibre, nutrition, variety, contrast, visual interest and complete the meal. Without them it would just be a lump of steak on your plate. So unless you’re writing something like Waiting for Godot, it’s imperative your other cast members get the full treatment.

By full treatment I mean they must be developed, in your mind and in your background notes primarily, and portrayed in the story in a more subtle way. In other words, not as much back story as the main players. The reader doesn’t need to know but, as their creator, you most certainly do. This gives them a wholeness and sense of authenticity in all their actions and words. Otherwise they can be seen as simple plot devices which help drive the main action. Which they are, you just don’t want them to appear as if they are.

As with the main cast, you need a sense of their physical appearance and their driving motivations but they must never overshadow the main characters and not descend into caricature. Caricature is an easy trap to fall into. Wikipedia says, ‘In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.’ A character like this tends to be unbelievable and sounds a false note in the overall story. They can be enormous fun to write, think of Mr Collins and Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but getting the essence of their humanity beneath the quirkiness is vital.

Once you know who they are you can set them to work. There are the secondary characters who support the main character’s storyline, then there are extras. Have a bit of comic fun with the extras but pare it back the more central the characters are to the story. They may be central to a subplot which echoes the themes of the central plot or they may provide an opportunity for conflict which helps strengthen a major character. Whatever their function, they must be as believable and human as the main cast. To return to Mr Collins, the snobbish clergyman set to inherit the Bennett’s home thus depriving the four Bennett girls of their only fortune. He is insufferable in his snobbery, his obsequious attitude to Lady de Bourgh is nauseating, yet he sincerely wishes to help the Bennett girls. His impulse is generous, although comical and repellant to others. It’s that subtle quality which leavens his pompousness and quietly rounds him out to full humanity. I mean, if Charlotte Lucas is prepared to marry him he can’t be the complete fool he sometimes presents as.

Every character is vital to the ultimate fabric of the story. You can’t skimp on development because they aren’t the stars of the show. Give them a subtle depth and they’ll reward you by carrying story, plot and theme to the last page.


Phillipa Fioretti’s author website:

Phillipa Fioretti’s bio page


The Book of LoveThe Fragment of Dreams     Half Moon BayStillwater CreekThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteGirl Saves Boy

Writing Novels in Australia

Writing Natural Dialogue In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

Writing convincing, natural dialogue can be a challenge for novelists. Personally, I love writing dialogue. It’s partly where characters come to life. I have mine blathering on at great length in my first drafts. In the subsequent drafts I pare back, delete, fuss and fiddle, trying to get the dialogue to seem as natural as possible.

Most conversations take place while someone is doing something else: driving, walking or whatever. To sit down and have a coherent one-to-one conversation and to stay on topic is unnatural for people. Yet writers have characters do it all the time.

Combining action and dialogue gives a more natural feel and prevents the story from collapsing into strings of conversations held together by the odd bit of exposition. If you pay attention to conversations around you it soon become clear that people circle around, stumble, pause and generally bumble through conversations like toddlers in a play pen.

A fun exercise which can heighten your awareness of natural conversation is to unobtrusively record family or friends – nobody who will get cross with you and smash your digital recorder – having a conversation and then transcribe it, or use speech to text if you have it. Edit the conversation down to a couple of lines which capture the feeling and subject. It’s quite a surprise to discover how much rubbish people speak on a daily basis.

It’s also a valuable exercise for detecting the dynamic between speakers or within a group. What is left unsaid, is thinly veiled, hints at an underlying agenda or is obviously an attack or an alliance, should all be considered when writing dialogue, because, for all their talk, people often don’t mean what they say.

It can be far more realistic and intriguing for readers, who often know more than the characters do about a situation, for the dialogue to be indirect and subtle. Dialogue is a great vehicle for showing character. You just have pay close attention to how you write it.


Phillipa Fioretti’s author website:

Phillipa Fioretti’s bio page


The Book of LoveThe Fragment of Dreams     Savage TideA Distant LandHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia

Creating Great Novel Characters, by Helene Young

The heart of a story is the cast of characters that people it. You can have a plot that twists, turns and surprises, but without memorable characters it will not linger with your readers. Characters need to resonate. To do that they must have traits we can relate to or empathise with and we need to be able to appreciate that, given their circumstances, we too may make the same choices.  So how do we do that?

A character is the sum total of the life they have already lived before they take front and center in our stories.

A young child is a pristine canvas with room to grow.

A teenager may have splashes of colour from the angst of puberty or from their impulsive anger and joy.

A woman in her early twenties may have experienced loss and love, disappointment and triumph.  She may be growing into a confident adult with the world before her.

A man in his forties may remember the partners he has loved and those he has left. He may measure the career he dreamed of having against the one he’s achieved. He will have have formed ideas based on his prior experiences. He will judge based on what’s gone before.

A man in his seventies  may remember the peak of his career, his conquests, his children and his prowess as a twenty-five year old.

A woman in her nineties may be closer to her childhood than her current age of decline. She may recall the smell of the earth when the rain fell as she walked to school with no shoes. She may remember the sadness of her first love with tears in her eyes and the joy with a trembling mouth. She may tell you of her family, long dead, and the things that made them special.

It’s our job as writers to coax our characters into revealing these memories, these fragments of their lives. Since I don’t plot my stories, I build a character map as I write.  Sometimes I interview them, but when I do I’m interested in things like: What was their earliest memory? What was their first kiss like? When was the first time they cried as an adult? What is the experience of swimming in the ocean like for them?

The answers surprise me at times. Sometimes they send me off on tangents but often they provide the missing link, the final piece in the mosaic. Those answers are the colour, the texture, the scent and the voice of my characters.

So do whatever it takes, channel Andrew Denton, think like Richard Fidler or Michael Parkinson and take no prisoners. These are your characters and it’s your job to dig deep, even if you make them cry.


Helene Young’s author website:

Helene Young’s bio page


Wings of FearShattered SkyBurning LiesHalf Moon Bay     Rotten GodsHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeod

Writing Novels in Australia

Character Cliches And Originality When Writing Novels, by Greg Barron

In part two of my series on clichés I’m going to look at character clichés.

A polite way of referring to character clichés is to call them archetypes, and it’s true that these do exist. We all know a friendly mechanic in blue overalls, a funny dentist who hands out lollypops, a depressed, rebellious teenager, or an adult who never grows up, but once you get to know them, you find that they all have unique qualities of their own.

Elements of clichés exist in all humans, but unless you’re writing something deliberately basic, you need to make your characters complex and interesting. Clichés are neither.

The late Robert Graves, in his wonderful poem The Devil’s Advice to Storytellers advises that you should populate your novel with random travellers, like you would find on a train or in a cafe. Try having a look next time you’re waiting for a coffee. These people are all interesting in their own way. Describe some of them. I often take a notebook to public places and write short, descriptive phrases about people I see.

It’s amazing how few outright clichés you will find. Much fewer than in the latest Hollywood romantic comedy. Best of all are the people who raise questions in your mind. An elderly woman wearing a red coat and blue beret holds a faded biscuit tin. What’s in the tin? Why is that teenage girl holding hands so tightly with that sad little boy? Make your characters fidget, look around and get jealous. Make them do real things that real people do.

Many clichés are based on looks. Dialogue helps too. As we walk down the main street of our town we are constantly assessing people. Take that kid with a skateboard tucked under one arm, baggy shorts and his cap on backwards – he’s a skater, smokes dope, does graffiti and wags school, doesn’t he? Not if he’s your nephew, because then you know that he also collects rare coins, came second in his school in maths and is a good long distance runner. Or take the old man driving down the road at 70 km/hour. If he was your grandfather you’d know that he raced for Holden at Bathurst in the 1960s.

What separates clichés from real living characters is detail. Clothes, age, facial features and hair colour are a great start. But readers need more than that. They need to know the experiences that made the character into the person they are. The great writers of commercial fiction can paint these details very quickly, with just a few strokes of the pen (or keyboard). The finer points of character, in genre fiction, are best fed into the story a little at a time. Literary writers will slowly build immensely detailed characters.

Don’t write nationality clichés: the disciplined, obedient German; the gruff, penny-pinching Scotsman; the loud American; or the ocker Aussie. People might see these as insulting. Or jobs: the boring accountant, the stern headmaster, the selfish (or selfless) politician.

Have some fun and turn archetypes on their ear. Use thoughtful, original detail. If there is a secret to writing, that’s probably it.


Greg Barron’s author website:

Greg Barron’s Bio Page

Rotten Gods     A Distant LandBurning LiesHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteThe Book of Love

Writing Novels in Australia

Getting the Structure Right, by Russell Cornhill

Damn it, I’ve killed my second POV character. No, I don’t mean he died in the story. I mean he’s gone, deleted, never to be seen again. Now there’s identity theft.

That means structural changes that can’t wait until I finish the first draft. I didn’t need that right now.

I guess my problems started well before I joined the Novel Program. I had eight or nine ideas for satirical stories with goblins as the central characters. That’s fine except that then I had the bright idea to connect the stories – same world with a background story that culminated in a tenth book. I believe in keeping things as simple as possible but somehow I always manage to complicate things. Some of the ideas were strengthened when I quickly worked out a rough chronology, so I decided the idea was a good one and left it there while I concentrated on a rewrite I was doing at the time.

I started the program with only a rough idea of the first story and suddenly realised that in many ways, the story line didn’t fit the new world, though it was still the best story for introducing a world where the conflict between humans and goblins was to become the main theme.

I introduced the orcs and orc character Abal to bridge the gap between the start of the story and the arrival of the humans. Kain (a goblin character) is the protagonist but Abal became Axal and took on a life of his own. Not a problem except others were identifying with Axal and not with Kain.

Okay, I’ll get rid of him.

I decided that was a knee-jerk reaction and I’d look at ways to make Kain more appealing but the idea persisted. I realised that Axal was taking much of the story-line that should have belonged to Kain – even stealing the climactic scene. By giving most of his story-line to Kain, I was strengthening Kain and getting rid of the constant switch between characters. Not only did Kain take on added life but so did some of the other characters and so did many of the relationships. Axal was only adding complications I didn’t need.

Bye, bye, Axal.

I guess another solution may have been to allow Axal to become the main protagonist but I’m not sure that ‘The Orc Chronicles’ has the same ring to it.


Russell Cornhill bio page

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Boxed SetBeast Quest Master Your Destiny: The Pirate's Curse (Beast Quest)The Grasping Goblin (Grim and Grimmer)Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of GreenThe Monster's Corner: Stories Through Inhuman EyesWriting the Breakout Novel: Winning Advice from a Top Agent and His Best-selling ClientWriting: A User Manual: A Practical Guide to Planning, Starting and Finishing a Novel

Character And Story, by Ben Marshall

I’m a full time scriptwriter for television which, stated baldly like that, sounds like I’m attending a Writers’ Anonymous meeting and am about to unload my tragic back-story. I’m not. But while I’m a pro with scripts – describing action, structuring scenes and writing dialogue – I’m an amateur when it comes to short story and novel writing.

Since moving off a property two years ago, I’ve had time to explore this other area of writing and pretend there was a chance I might one day be published. This admission will, to those aware of the current state of the publishing industry, indicate that I’m an optimist by nature, which will, to those familiar with contemporary psychology, indicate that I’m hopelessly unrealistic.

That said, my impressions of the writing game so far show that a level of blithe ignorance and dogged obsession are the most useful tools to advance one’s fantasies of becoming a ‘proper writer’. The motives for wishing such a pointless outcome range from a vague desire to attract admiration from others, similar to that which I gave certain authors during my youth, to a murkier desire to show off to those who never thought I’d amount to much. I’m talking about my parents, of course and, as mine are both dead, I feel my less murky motives are similar to geezers who fill their attics with model trains and miniature landscapes. I want to build a world where I, and others, can lose ourselves and re-find ourselves.

Writing soap opera, as I do, requires me to locate and reveal the emotional truth of a scene. Those who scoff at soap because of its shonky production values, hammy acting and stilted dialogue are welcome to do so but should also be aware that those who invest regular time to watch a soapie are emotionally engaged with it, just as you are with a serial drama you would choose not to scoff at like, say, The Wire, The Slap, The Straits or South Park. The fundamental difference between, say, Neighbours and The Wire is merely money and time. The similarity – that which we viewers draw sustenance from – is the emotional truths revealed in them. A good story well told is what all writers seek to achieve, but we often stumble when we mistake plot for story. Plot is a series of events occurring over time.
Story is what happens to the characters within that framing, and is the bit we really care about.
A feature film can take a year to write and make, often much longer, costs millions and lasts for a couple of hours. A week of soap opera takes a week to write and make, on a shoestring – hence the production values. But while a feature film might have a couple of plots to tell its story, a week of soap will contain up to a dozen storylines.
Television storyliners produce plot and story at a rate you can’t imagine, and they do it hour after hour, week after week, year after year. In this grinding of mental gears, brains get worn and sloppy, and one of the first things to go wrong is the creation of characters.
Characters begin to be written up as a physical description with a series of personality traits.
Here, I’ll make one up for you. ‘John is a good-looking twenty-something defense lawyer with a passion for criminal law. A risk-taker by nature, he often takes unwinnable cases, and loves to throw himself into extreme sports. His good looks and confidence endear him to women of every age, though John is yet to overcome the hurt of losing the great love of his life, Lucy, in a car crash six
months ago.’ That was an example of a typical character thumbnail in television, and it’s an example of absolute crap. It tells me nothing about what gets him out of bed in the morning or what his real drives are. Sloppy character creation will give a character motives like ‘he or she seeks fame, money, success or love’. We all aspire to some or all of those things so it doesn’t help understand the character in any significant way. It’s the ‘why’ the character aspires to any of those things that counts.

Let’s tackle John again. ‘John is a twenty-something defense lawyer.
His father is a High Court judge and was almost completely absent from John’s childhood. Often his only interaction with his son was to urge him to higher marks and put him down for anything less than an A+. He also secretly suspected John was not his biological son. John’s mother is a self-obsessed academic and trustee of several charities, who had John by accident late in life. Whenever she expressed love of her son, her husband found small, passive-aggressive ways to put her down. This distorted the mother-son relationship, turning it into paler version of what it might’ve been. Last year John was driving the car when he crashed and killed the girl he’d just proposed to.
While no-one says so, everyone blames him for her death.’

Okay, it’s not Tolstoy but it’s better – you can see where I’m coming from.

The crucial thing for me in telling stories is character. The crucial thing for me with character is knowing exactly what they’d do in any given situation because of who and what they are.

Bottom line? Character = story.


Ben Marshall bio page

Starting Your Television Writing Career: The Warner Bros. Writers Workshop GuideWriting Television SitcomsPlot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great FictionStory and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and FilmBuilding a CharacterThe Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing and Publishing)Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique


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