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Excerpt from The Fire In Fiction

Techniques and exercises for creating characters who matter.

The heroes of popular series are memorable, but quick: Who’s the most unforgettable sidekick in contemporary fiction? Takes some thought, doesn’t it? Dr. Watson comes easily to mind; perhaps also Sancho Panza or Paul Drake? After that it’s easier to think of sidekicks from movies or comic books.

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Same question for femmes fatales. Not so easy, is it? Conjuring up the names of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930) or Carmen Sternwood in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) tests the depth of your trivia knowledge. Maybe you thought of Justine in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (1957–1960)? Points to you—but what about contemporary fiction? Do you recall the name of Lyra Belacqua’s mother in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (1995)? (It’s Mrs. Coulter.) Other femmes fatales?

We could issue the same challenge with respect to the great villains of contemporary literature. After Hannibal Lecter, who is there?

Come to that, how many secondary characters of any type stick in your mind from the fiction you’ve read in the last year? Do you read chic lit? Have you ever felt that the gaggle of sassy girlfriends in one is pretty much the same as in the rest? How about killers and assassins? Do many of them seem to you stamped from the same mold? How about children? Do precocious kids in novels make you want to gag?

If so, you see my point. Secondary characters in published fiction often are weak.

Supporting players in manuscripts submitted to my agency are too often forgettable, as well. They walk on and walk off, making no particular impression. What wasted opportunities, in my opinion, especially when you consider that secondary characters aren’t born, they’re built. So, how can you construct a secondary character whom readers will never forget?

Suppose you want a character to be special. You want this character to have stature, allure, or a significant history with your protagonist. How is that effect achieved? A look at examples of some contemporary femmes fatales may help us out.
James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987) probably is the finest noir novel of our time. It’s the rich, dark, complex, and highly layered story of a 1940s Los Angeles police detective, Bucky Bleichert, who becomes obsessed with a murder victim, Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia by the press. Her murder was grisly, the torture beforehand gruesome, and the cast of suspects a roster of corruption. Central to the story, however, is Bucky’s fixation on the Black Dahlia. She was beautiful in life, and highly promiscuous, but why is Bucky haunted by this victim over any other?

That, in a way, is the eternal problem of making a character singular. Is there any description of beauty so effective that it would make anyone swoon? Is there a sexual allure that can seduce everyone who opens a book? Do you believe that a crusty cop would really care about a bad news babe?

Making a character uniquely compelling for all readers is pretty much impossible. As readers, we are all too different. What is beautiful, seductive, and dangerous for me may well be laughable to you. What is possible is to make momentous the effect of one character upon another. As with greatness, creating a feeling that a character is special is a matter of measuring her impact. The Black Dahlia opens with Bucky Bleichert looking back after the case has closed:

I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence the ways of her death drove them. Working backward, seeing only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been—a tag that might equally apply to me. I wish I could have granted her an anonymous end, relegated her to a few terse words on a homicide dick’s summary report, carbon to the coroner’s office, more paperwork to take her to potter’s field. The only thing wrong with the wish is that she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. As brutal as the facts were, she would have wanted all of them known. And since I owe her a great deal and am the only one who does know her entire story, I have undertaken the writing of this memoir.

What in that paragraph conveys the impact the Black Dahlia has had on Bucky? Is it the elevated tone of his prose? His regret? The Dahlia’s refusal to stay small, a “could-have-been”? I believe that it’s the simple words “I owe her a great deal.” Bucky is in debt to a dead girl. That debt is intriguing by itself but also makes the Dahlia special to Bucky.

Russell Banks’s The Reserve (2008) is set in a private community for the rich, the “Reserve” of the title, in the Adirondack Mountains in the 1930s. Jordan Groves, a local artist with leftist leanings, falls under the spell of Vanessa Cole, the twice-divorced daughter of a respected brain surgeon and his society wife. Vanessa has secrets and a dangerous side, but at first Jordan is dazzled. As he lands his seaplane at her family’s lakeside compound and sees her for the second time, his fascination with her is apparent:

He shut off the motor and sat there for a few seconds and watched Vanessa. She was in a group of perhaps ten people, but he saw no one else. She wore a calf-length black skirt and a dark gray silk blouse with billowing sleeves and over her broad shoulders a black crocheted shawl, and she looked even more beautiful to Jordan today than when he’d seen her yesterday in the fading, late-afternoon sunlight standing alone by the shore of the Second Lake. She had on bright red, almost scarlet lipstick, and mascara, and though she was pale and her face full of sorrow, she was luminous to him, enveloped by a light that seemed to emanate from inside her. He did not think that he had ever seen a woman with a visible field of light surrounding her like that, a gleaming halo wrapped around her entire body.

What is it that makes Vanessa beautiful? Her black skirt, dark gray silk blouse, and red lipstick? Her black crocheted shawl? Crochet? Um, that doesn’t scream siren to me. No, rather it is the aura of light that Jordan sees surrounding her. Would you or I see it? Maybe, maybe not. But Jordan sees it, and his perception is what counts.

Jodi Picoult is a best-selling author and a spinner of morality tales for our time. Her knack for provocative premises is enviable. The Pact (1998) revolves around a suicide pact between a teenage boyfriend and girlfriend—Chris Harte and Emily Gold, lifelong next-door neighbors—that goes wrong. Emily’s suicide (via gunshot) succeeds. Chris does not go through with it and lives.

For many authors that would be enough tragedy to occasion an aftermath novel, the survivors taking us on yet one more journey of healing and self-discovery. Picoult is a more masterful plotter, though. Doubt about what really happened grows. Eventually Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder. Picoult teases out the evidence, swinging our suspicions this way and that, until finally Chris takes the stand and reveals his true feelings about Emily:

“Do you know,” Chris said softly, “what it’s like to love someone so much, that you can’t see yourself without picturing her? Or what it’s like to touch someone, and feel like you’ve come home?” He made a fist, and rested it in the palm of his other hand. “What we had wasn’t about sex, or about being with someone just to show off what you’ve got, the way it was for other kids our age. We were, well, meant to be together. Some people spend their whole lives looking for that one person,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have her all along.”

Picoult has a tough job in The Pact. For plot reasons she must withhold from us for most of the novel the truth of what really happened. Finally it comes out: Chris procured the suicide gun and helped Emily hold it to her head. He did this because he cared profoundly about her. She wanted suicide, he hoped to talk her out of it, but in the end he helped her because it was the only thing that would relieve her pain.

That, anyway, is what Picoult wants both the jury and her readers to swallow. We have to, for the jury is going to find Chris not guilty. That’s quite a trick. For it to work, Chris has to sway us with a heartfelt declaration of love. Picoult’s passage above does the job; at any rate, it did for many readers. To my eye it’s clear that for Chris, Emily was special.

Who have been the special people in your life, the ones whose presence looms larger, whose friendships are fundamental, who are indelibly part of your personal story? You have such people in your life, I’m sure. Me too. How is it, then, that protagonists in many manuscripts seem to live in blissful isolation, self-sufficient, wholly self-made, and dependent on no one? Who are these people? They are not real. Consequently they are also unreal for readers. If they are to keep us deeply involved for several hundred pages, protagonists need a personal history.

Who in your story has special stature? Is there an influential teacher, a spouse, a past love, a friend of long standing, a wizard at math, an egotistical-but-gifted auto mechanic? Is there a character in your story who could be given such elevated importance? It isn’t that difficult to do. Explore the effect that this paragon has on your protagonist, then find a meaningful moment for that effect to be expressed.

Singular human beings may be rare in life, but this is fiction. You can build them as needed. Who knows? You might even construct for yourself a whole new incarnation of the femme fatale.


Creating Special Characters

STEP 1: Look at the special character through the eyes of your protagonist. List three ways in which they are exactly alike. Find one way in which they are exactly the opposite.

STEP 2: Write down what most fascinates your protagonist about this special character. Also note one thing about the special character that your protagonist will never understand.

STEP 3: Create the defining moment in their relationship. Write down specific details of the place, the time, the action, and their dialogue during this event. What single detail does, or will, your protagonist remember best? What detail does she most want to forget?

STEP 4: At the end of your story, in what way has this special character most changed your protagonist? At the story’s outset, in what way does your protagonist most resist this special character?

STEP 5: Incorporate the above into your manuscript.

DISCUSSION: Special-ness comes not from a character but from their impact on the protagonist. What are the details that measure their impact? How specific can you make them? The steps above are just a start. Whether for femmes fatales or any other character, it is those details that will bring their special-ness alive.

About the Book
For more tips on developing characters who matter, check out The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass.

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