The Color In Your Characters
I’m talking about secondary characters. The minor roles that give your world texture, give it context. I’ve always sort of gravitated to secondary characters in stories. Why? Pretty damned simple to sort out. Given the heterosexist world we live in, as a gayboy I had to often look for subtle clues if a secondary character was gay or not. Then it would be – ooh, what’s he doing? What’s he about?
It was always the secondary characters in stories that held my interest – almost more than the main characters. Actually, it’s the ensemble work that usually draws me in. I love great ensemble casts.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer it was Xander and Spike that kept me going in that show. Willow too. Far more than Buffy (who always seemed one note in comparison to the other characters in her world). Don’t get me wrong I am a HUGE Buffy fan. Hell, put me down as a Joss Whedon fan, period.
There are many such shows that garnered my attention in great part because of the ensemble of secondary characters that fleshed out the world the main character had to play in.
In Downton, Cousin Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) of course provides just about as much color a human being can in a character.
I had the pleasure of watching Dame Maggie in Lettice and Lovage on Broadway when she was in the title role of Lettice Duffey. It was written for her and man oh man did it show. I was fifth row center (literally) and the air was electric – it tingled along my skin whenever she was on stage – and okay, she was the main character, but what it did do was give me a real sense of the subtleties of character development.
Lettice Duffey was a broad character – one that would rival another monolithic strong woman character – Auntie Mame (Dennis). Yet, in both cases (Rosalind Russell and Maggie Smith’s turn as Mame and Lettice), they knew just the right amount of hubris to ground the character to make them infinitely accessible.
So yes, main characters can be just as colorful, just as compelling (they are main characters, after all) but for me, those actors who portray these iconic characters, when they get their teeth into a secondary role, you get such nuance and flavor from their portrayal that I can’t help but be drawn in.
It was that way with True Blood, too – I was all about Pam and Eric. Sookie and Bill were beside the point, say nothing of the brilliant, brilliant turn of Ryan Kwantan as Jason. But my first love in True Blood was always Lois Smith as Sookie’s grandmother. I just LOVE Lois Smith. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in something I didn’t like her performance. She was never big and brassy. But lord does she permeate each scene she’s in. Her portrayal as Sookie Stackhouses beloved grandmother was carefully measured but incredibly believable. She was the grounding that Sookie needed to make her accessible. Without her in the beginning of the True Blood world, it would have not had the same balance. It would have been too fantastic. Gran kept us sane and safe (to a degree).
Okay, so you’re probably saying ‘yeah, but your just talking about acting and not story telling.’ The obvious retort is that plays and screenplays are just one more way to tell a story. Books acted out sort of thing. I come from theater so I tend to gravitate to that world whenever I think of storytelling. So the whole reason I am using performance storytelling as opposed to literary works is that I wanted to put as many people as possible on the same page in their minds. Much easier.
But that’s not to say I can’t use some classic characters in literary circles that I can put out there to make my point – Dr. Watson to Sherlock? Though to be honest, it could be argued that John Watson was more of an elevated secondary character but he’ll do as an example. A story without John Watson just wouldn’t be right. Watson is our accessibility to the heady brilliance of Sherlock.
In Dorian Gray it is the secondary characters that give us our main characters color. They provide Dorian with the allure and the brutal sensuality – it is through their eyes, their voice that we get a flavor of Dorian before he ever hits the page himself.
In my own story, Angels of Mercy, I tried to sort this out with my boys. Marco has his cousin Francesca, a wild but über hot cousin that as much as she is beguiling she is also the most loyal companion to Marco. It was important for me to have someone like her in Marco’s world to give him something to play against in his family life. In book one of the series, we don’t really get any real sense of Marco’s mother or father. It’s all about Frankie (Francesca) that we get a sense of Marco’s home life. I really love her for so many reasons. She’s a goddess on steroids but with a heart of gold underneath that Venus allure.
For Elliot, the main POV character of the first book, it’s his mother and his best friend Greg that give us a peek into Elliot’s world. Where Marco’s world is big and bright and full of adoration from the masses, Elliot’s is the exact opposite. All he has in his small world is Greg and his mother, and then Marco himself.
That was the question I had burning inside of me as Marco and Elliot began to form – I wanted to know what would happen if the geeky artsy shy out gay kid became boyfriend to the highest profile jock on campus. In book one, we sort of get that answer.
Yet, it isn’t just the characters that I’ve mentioned that are what provide texture to Marco and Elliot’s world. There’s Beau Hopkins. Caramel colored, massively beautiful and completely black of heart. Beau is the danger in this world. He’s a dark horse in a growing dark world for my boys. Beau is a user. He’s a manipulator. He comes from a very confining world of Football and religion. His father is a preacher in town and quite hard on his son. Beau, while formulaic in that he’s the atypical Preacher’s son, he also has a couple of surprises that Elliot gets him to admit something that only proves to tighten the screws on the horrific end to the first book.
If that weren’t enough, we have a very opportunistic cheerleader – Cindy Markham. She’s trouble in a pretty package with all the charm of a man-eating piranha. She’s a manipulator in a massively whacked out way – emphasis on MANipulate. She and Beau are the boys worst possible nightmare.
Then there’s the boy’s greatest asset – Elliot’s mother and best friend – Kayla Donahey and Greg Lettau. These are the boy’s home base. They are the rock that allow the boys to rise and dream beyond their existence in Mercy High. Then when the world seems full, the ensemble is set, I bring Danny Jericho into the mix. Danny’s the wild card. Danny’s the boy who will put all of the characters into a tailspin. He’s the great unknown. He’s also the boys secret weapon. Though he makes his appearance late in the book, he soon becomes the boy they can’t do without.
While the story is about the geeky gay kid and the über hot and popular jock and their reach for the stars, I wanted my secondary cast to be just as rich, just as textured – maybe even more so. I mean, I didn’t want termites in costume (which is what we call scenery chewers on stage). You know, characters that pull focus. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job, my characters embolden the story, they give it its legs.
And it only gets better with the second book (told from Marco’s perspective) in that the two secondary characters that I had in the background in book one come to the fore – Angus Carr and Nick Donahey. I LOVE THESE MEN! Oh, gods, how I fell in love with Elliot’s dad and Marco’s new found friend at his future school (Stanford University). These men are beyond brilliant. Angus just has his heart on his sleeve, he’s so amazing I get giddy like a school girl whenever he comes into the scene. I’ve already peppered the story I am telling with a secondary tale that I can always spin off in this world with Danny and Angus (yeah, that was a minor spoiler).
I am always thinking about my secondary cast. It’s how my main characters shine – at least to my way of thinking.
So whether it’s Kayla, Greg or Danny – Beau, Cindy or Francesca. It’s all about the textures in the background to my world that make everything just a bit more dense, a deeper flavor to the tale I am telling.
The stars of the show can only shine if they’ve got others behind them as the backdrop – the colors and textures that make them who they are. And I make it my business to know EVERY facet of their lives before they ever step onto the novel stage. They are fully fleshed out in my head before they utter their first words. It’s just how it goes with me.
I just can’t think of any other way to do it.