Before we go any further, I want to talk about the difference between Point of View and Focalization. (For those who are interested, Mieke Bal’s book Narratology has a great discussion of this.) I tend to write in the first person, and to focalize through my narrator. But those are two different things. POV is the grammatical relationship between the narrator and the story being told. Focalization is perhaps best described as "where the camera rests." Whose shoulder is it peering over, if any? Here are three examples of the same scene:
(1) I walked into the room and as I saw a ghost lurking over the fireplace, my heart began to race. (1POV, focalized through MC.)
(2) She walked into the room and as she observed a ghost lurking over the fireplace, her heart began to race. (3POV, focalized through MC.)
(3) She walked into the room and her face paled. (3POV, focalized through secondary character or narrator)
Whether you are writing first person, or second, or third, with one narrator or several, focalization is a useful and important tool when we begin thinking about these secondary characters. If you have only one focalizer for the book, you still have to mount the camera on your SC’s shoulders, away from your manuscript, in order to make them feel real.
To see the world the way they do is our surest guide to creating solid Secondaries. We all notice different things, based on our past. Our past informs our perceptions and our language.
I’ll give a simple example. Here are two different ways of describing jealousy:
Jealousy like the sting of a wasp.
Jealousy like a thick choking smog.
Which character likely grew up in London? Which in the country? Our past experiences inform our ways of perceiving.
I am going to describe a scene three ways.
(1) The house was a white clapboard with a front door that didn’t shut proper. Slovenly, this one was, same as all the other Morgans. She’d strung a laundry line from a rusty hook on the house out to a tree, hanging her laundry instead of drying it inside decent-like. Today it was whites ‘cause it was Monday.
(2) We drew up to his childhood house and Kevin turned the engine off. In the sudden silence, I peered through the windshield. The white house cast its gray shadow forward, over the gravel, and over us as we climbed out of the car. Pale sheets and towels dangled over the line, flapping in a syncopated rhythm in the wind.
(3) As we pulled in the driveway, I noticed the bottom half of two newish wheels of a bike that stood just to the side of the house. A bedsheet flapped in the breeze, and a sudden gust of wind lofted it high enough that I could see the bike was a rebuilt Honda. Dwayne’s. Crap.
It’s the same scene, a house with laundry. But if you had to take a guess, which one of these characters is a mechanic? A musician? And a nosy neighbor? You can also make guesses about how old they are, their gender, and their education. Each of these are only a few lines long.
Exercise 2. Now we’re going to retro-engineer this. Choose a scene in your manuscript, not your opening scene. Maybe one from later in the book in which the main character enters a room. I’ll give you a moment to find that, and I want you to read it silently to yourself. If you are not working on a manuscript at the moment, write a paragraph right now from the perspective of that main character entering, for example, the kitchen in your house. What does he or she notice?
Now, I want you to take a fresh piece of paper or open a brand new document and write the exact same scene from the perspective of two different secondary characters. Use first person voice (“I”) and focalize through your secondary characters. This isn’t going to go into your book. This is all for off-stage.
Take at least 5 minutes for this.
The point of this exercise is to temporarily inhabit your secondary characters, in a separate space. If your manuscript is the "on-stage" space, this is what happens off stage. But it matters because in my experience, every bit of backstory and imagining you do off stage feathers its way into your book in ways you only realize later.
Part of the reason this sort of “off-stage” work is important is because feathering is key. You all know what an info-dump looks like, where the narrator has a paragraph filling you in about what happened before the book begins. We’ve all encountered them. Frankly, they can be ugly. Here’s an example of a bad info-dump that was in one of mine.
Claire remembered that night six months ago. She had looked out her window, and in the light from the streetlamp she saw a car pull up next door. The light inside the car went on, and she saw the silhouette of her mother kissing the driver. Who was he? Claire’s father was downstairs. Was he seeing this? Claire felt a wave of betrayal, for both of them. The car drove away and Claire heard the key turn in the lock. And two months later, when Claire’s mother was killed—a passenger in the seat of a car, driven by a man from work who was DUI—she thought back to that night and wondered if things would’ve ended up differently if she’d said something. Now she and her father were moving to Arizona, to make a fresh start. But she still felt wracked with guilt and uncertainty.
This sort of thing can be clunky, if it appears in the novel. But it’s good material if it remains off stage. Claire’s guilt over her silence, her anger toward her mother, and her curiosity about what her father knows or doesn’t know, can be feathered in adeptly over time. I mean, real life doesn’t follow the same rules as books, but if you met someone who dumped all this on you straight away, you’d be thinking, TMI!—and you would probably distance yourself. To some extent, that holds true for readers. If backstory is presented incrementally, we can absorb it; furthermore, feathering in means a character’s psychology evolves for readers over time, which suggests that a character has layers and depth.
My point is, keep that infodump, that formative story that shaped your Secondary Character, put it in your Character List, print it out and put it up on your bulletin board--and it will feather its way in.
As far as imagining a scene from several perspectives, once you get rolling along with your writing, chances are you won’t need to do this for every scene. But when you are stuck—when a scene is feeling flat—this is one of the best ways I know to bring it to life.
In Part IV, I'll give some "cautions" about using Secondary Characters. Stay tuned!