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Dreaming up the supporting cast

For a long time we’ve been obsessed at Lighthouse with secondary and even tertiary character development–it can mean the difference between a good story and a great one. I was thinking about this after hearing Ron Carlson’s words on the topic:

One of the things I’ve tried to do in my work, as I’ve written characters, is look all around the circle, look at every character very carefully, and make sure that he or she is getting their due. Has the writer honored the character by making the character capable of the moment? When I saw [the wife, one of his characters] at the edges of the story, I thought, Oh, she’s coming in, she’s going to be in her ascendancy here.

Enter Robert McBrearty, Sherwood Anderson Award-winning author of A Night at the Y and Episode, who inspired in Missouri Review editor Speer Morgan the following praise:

Robert McBrearty’s characters are in trouble, off on crazy schemes, headed nowhere fast, but always they’re somewhere on the path of trying to make a change for the better. These are plainspeaking, entertaining stories about driving in the lost lane, looking for exits.” 

With that endorsement, we figured McBrearty could help us all.  We asked him to jot down a few thoughts about creating fiction’s (and even nonfiction’s) supporting cast, and he didn’t disappoint.

In my early days as a writer – and by “early days” I may in fact be speaking of a couple of decades of writing, it seemed like my stories were generally told and acted out by a main character who was sort of a stand-in for me. Depending on the story, this sort of “me” character might be either more or less appealing than the actual in fact “me,” though in either case it was a depressing prospect.

I think we go through “breakthrough” moments as writers and one breakthrough came to me following a session with my writing group at the time. I had written a two person story about two misfit plumbers at work on the toilet from hell. One of the writers in our group pointed out that I’d given all the good, funny lines to my main plumber character and that the other one just sort of existed as a foil. I rewrote the story, giving the second character more attention, and an interesting thing happened – as I more fully created the second character, instead of diminishing the main character, the main character himself took on more depth and life and moved farther away from simply seeming like another version of “me.” Along the way, I also strengthened the family whose house was being worked on.  In a way the toilet itself became a sort of character, evil incarnate being exorcised.  My friend in the workshop had made one of those comments that were truly helpful, not just on the one story that eventually appeared under the title “The Real World” in my collection Episode,  but on all my future stories as well.

McBreaty explores both "landscape" and "evil toilet" as character in his fiction.

I’ve learned that it helps me as writer  to spread the story around, to bring more characters onto the stage.  I start hearing the hum of various voices in my ear and the stories move away from what just seems like “me”, and they take on the lively feel of a play, first acted out in my own head, and then on the page itself.  Of course, sometimes one character emerges with such intensity that the other characters back off in alarm and give over the stage.   

In  an early draft of one of my most recent stories, “The Helmeted Man” which appeared in The North American Review, the story was basically about one man reminiscing on a moment of heroism from his past. In the final form of the story, his memory is scrutinized and commented upon by a variety of characters, some of whom want to “improve” upon the memory of heroism and some who are skeptical about it, forcing the main character to pursue the truth of the experience. 

Thankfully, Robert will be teaching a one-day workshop on this subject. Join him in creating your own supporting cast at his one-day workshop on December 4, then stop by the Lighthouse Draft 8.0 and Holiday Party that night (more details coming!).


3 comments on “Dreaming up the supporting cast

  1. ilona
    November 13, 2010

    What uncanny timing – just after peeking at the blog I opened The Writer’s Chronicle and saw an article called “What about the Suffering? The Quiet Power of Minor Characters.”

  2. Karen Palmer
    November 13, 2010

    Hello Robert! What a pleasure to see you here. Hope all is well with you and your family. Next time I’m in CO, we need to do a Louisville boys’ lunch, even if Tom is in Golden now.

    To everyone else, you cannot go wrong by taking this class. Robert is a wonderful writer and teacher.

    • Robert McBrearty
      November 13, 2010

      Hi Kerry,
      Thank you for the kind note! The Louisville boys would love to have lunch with you!

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This entry was posted on November 12, 2010 by in Cool Events, The Scoop, The Write Idea, Writing.

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