Monday, 17 October 2011

A QUESTION OF UPSTAGING

Hello, Dear Readers. I'm not sure I can quite squeeze out a 'Happy Monday' this morning, as today I was woken at 6am by a panicked call from my mum. She'd gone to check her emails before leaving for work, and found that her laptop wouldn't start up. At all. Black screen of death. Horror.

I couldn't fix it before she had to leave, but two and a half hours later I was able to boot the thing up and now I'm back at my own computer guzzling coffee and trying to stuff my brains back in my ears.

So! Onto a question that came to me via email from a reader called Rachel. She asks:
"What do you do if two of your characters want to be the main character? I have a 10 year old boy and a 20 year old woman, and the boy should be the main character, since it's technically his story, but I feel like the woman has a story to tell as well, and I don't want to give her too much voice in case she just floods the actual story. What can I do?"
I call this upstaging, and it's a surprisingly common problem. In fact, looking back, I'd say I've had this problem in every single book that I've ever written. Just to make it a bit clearer: upstaging is where a character who was originally supposed to be minor or secondary turns out to have such life and magnetism that every scene they're in warps around them, pulling attention away from the main character and the main story.

When it happened to me while writing The Swan Kingdom and Daughter of the Flames, I dealt with it by panicking and cutting those upstaging characters down to mere shadows of their former selves. Being forced to do this left me with a nagging sense of guilt which I've never quite escaped, and which hasn't been helped by readers repeatedly mentioning that they wished they'd learned more about these characters, and asking me for their backstories. Readers can sense that strange magnetism pulsing away even though those characters are barely on the page anymore.

When I came to write Shadows on the Moon the same problem reared its head in the form of Akira. She was originally planned as a rather cold and emotionally distant character, lonely and cut-off, someone who would serve as a warning to the heroine about the perils of her chosen path. Instead, she immediately manifested as funny, charming and brilliantly, vividly ALIVE. And of course I panicked, just like normal. But by then it was too late, because I was so in love with her that I couldn't bear to cut her down. I just couldn't.

So...

I let her do what she wanted.

Which sounds completely mad. She wasn't the main character! How could I just let her go off and take over the story? She wanted to act in ways that completely messed up my plan for the plot! She made my main character a different person! She intruded into places she was never supposed to be!

And she made the story TEN TIMES BETTER.

You see, I don't think that your secondary character really wants to take over the story. She just wants to make it better. Your subconscious brain is telling you that you have a chance to make your main character more realistic and complex, and your main story deeper and more compelling. But you can't do that by working on that character and story directly - you're already doing the best there that you can. You need to do it indirectly by utilising the magnetism that this secondary character brings to the book and by using their story to reinforce the main one.

Look at this secondary character and her backstory. Look at what she wants. Where is she intruding? What is she changing? What does she want to say? Search for the ways that her story, her personality, parallel the main character and main plot. Search for the ways that they differ.

Just as Akira's story of transforming passion and love serve as a negative image of Suzume's feelings in Shadows on the Moon, I think you'll realise that if you give this character a bit more room to grow, her journey will complement and reinforce the journey of the main character and make the book richer, more complex and more moving than it ever could have been without her.

I hope this is helpful, Rachel!

Just a quick reminder today as well - I've had a few emails of the 'Please read my story and tell me what you think' variety lately. Here's a link to my website page where I address this, but in short - if you send me stories or samples of work, I can't and won't read them.

See you on Wednesday, folks!

10 comments:

Rachel Balcombe said...

Thanks for this great post! I'm pretty sure I know what she's trying to do now, so thank you.

Zoë Marriott said...

V. welcome, Rachel!

Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

Great post, I've been struggling with a similar problem for months (it's one of the reasons my WIP has remained untouched for far too long). I feel like I can go away and think about it differently now so thank you!

Isabel said...

Such a helpful post! Thanks for the advice! :)

And good luck with your characters, Rachel!

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Oh, good - building up writerly Karma points!

Isabel: You're very welcome :)

pedro.c said...

I had this problem with one of my stories in a colege class, where the professor advised me to "make the character shut up somehow." He said that this was what Toni Morrison did when she encountered the same problem. I have sinced revised the sotry to just him be the main character and let the person I was intending on maining grow slowly into his own voice, so he could run a different, later section convincingly.

Megha said...

This is a really helpful post! Thanks ;-)

Zoë Marriott said...

Pedro: "Make the character shut up somehow"? LOL - how useful! I'm glad that you didn't listen.

Megha: I'm glad - thanks :)

Nara said...

Great post! Thanks for being so helpful with stuff like this! :D

I've got a question, as well. We were having an English lesson recently, where the teacher was telling us that you *cannot* have a sentence without a verb, and she asked us not to use 'sentences' without verbs in our creative writing because it didn't read well.

But I often read books, and write stories where an incomplete sentence is used for dramatic effect! ( e.g She stared at me intently. No shame. No fear. Only a strange curiosity.)

So, we got our stories back today and I found that I'd had a level less because I'd used 'incomplete' sentences!! :( I suppose this ties in with your post about 'writing rules', but I'm still a bit confused because teachers say one thing, and yet I read another in books!

Zoë Marriott said...

Nara, your teacher is frankly talking nonsense. But you already know this - your instincts and your reading have taught you so. I'm afraid that teachers quite often come up with these strange rules which are more about their own pet peeves than about reality. I remember a teacher of mine stating authoritatively that no professional writer would ever be so lazy as to use 'said' in a speech tag, and taking points off us if we ever had a character in our creative writing speak instead of hiss, exclaim, cry, yelp or howl. Also nonsense - in fact, being unwilling to use a simple 'said' this is one of the marks of the rank amateur! So, while you may have to conform to your teacher's sayings in order to get better marks in class, always remember that you're humouring her rather than learning anything resembling a rule for good writing.

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