Side characters

Last week I attended a reading by my friend, Alan Proctor, for his book The Sweden File: Memoir of an American Expatriate. I hadn’t been to the National Archives building before, and it was an interesting visit. Alan’s reading was pretty great, and I scored a copy of the book that he graciously signed.

While we were standing around before the reading, nibbling on snacks and chatting, I spoke with a couple of people who had read my book, Beloved Lives. Both expressed an interest in knowing more about the main character’s best friend, Trish. I must concede that in many ways, Trish is more interesting than April, but I meant for her to be. April is supposed to be a bit ordinary, and therefore, more relatable. Anyway, that was what I was shooting for, and apparently, I was somewhat successful.

This seems to be recurring issue for me. In the book I’m currently writing, one of the side characters is more interesting than anyone else in the story. I kind of want to keep him that way, but I begin to wonder if maybe there are times when the most interesting character ought be the star of the show. Of course, that would make a very different story.

I once wrote a short story that was supposed to be lighthearted, a tale told from the point of view of a lawyer come to visit his old college buddy who had gotten rich through his talent with genetic engineering and proteomics. For a lark, the friend had populated his secured retreat with creatures of his own making–a griffin, a unicorn, and his own daughter who was a mermaid. It was meant to be fun, but I realized, the more I thought about it, the better story was the daughter’s. To be the only one of her kind, her human skin and fish skin each never comfortable or appropriate for the other’s environment. I imagined the rage she would have against her parents for having created her. Not the same story at all.

Many books and articles have advice regarding the creation of characters. They will tell you to write detailed descriptions, comprehensive backstories, recurring mannerisms and habits, and so forth. It’s all good advice, but some characters seem to grow on their own, to fully inhabit their story world and only let you borrow them for a while before they go off to live a life that you have only glimpsed and recorded to the best of your ability. I am very fond of those characters. Perhaps I should be writing their stories instead. I’ll get back to you on that.

Image: Left to right, me, Monique, and Chris, each a character in her own right. By Jonathan Hutchins.

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