I’m working on the outline for my next project, and it’s going to be pretty complex. S and I love NaNoWriMo, of course, but after writing a bunch of NaNo-length novels (i.e. about 50,000 words), I feel like trying something a bit longer again. My NaNo novels usually have two POV characters. This new book I’m working on will have 60 chapters from eight different points of view, and it will be somewhere around 150,000 words long. That’s a lot of plot to keep track of, and a lot of characters who need their own, individual storylines.
When you introduce the reader to a character—particularly a POV character—you’re making a promise: “This guy is important.” More than that, there is what Blake Snyder refers to as “the Covenant of the Arc” in Save the Cat. You are promising the reader that this guy is going to do something interesting, or is going to change in some interesting way. You’re promising an arc, in other words. That’s fairly straightforward when it comes to the hero; his arc is the plot of the story, after all. If you’ve forgotten to give him an arc, you’ve got serious problems. But what about minor characters?
The Monomyth model
One way to craft a minor character’s arc is to take one of the common models of character development and apply it to the handful of scenes where the character appears. If we were talking about the story’s hero or heroine, each one of these points might represent multiple scenes and dozens of pages. But for a minor character, you can just have one scene for each stage of the arc. The number of stages in your arc depends on how many scenes this minor character will show up in. If, for example, the minor character shows up 8 times, you could try to make each one of those scenes correspond to a stage of Phil Cousineau’s “Hero’s Journey”
If the minor character shows up even fewer than eight times, you can try to apply one of the more popular models for plot outlines, like the classic Three-Act Structure, so that your minor character at least has a intro, a midpoint, and a climax. There are other models, though. Two that I’ve tried using on my latest outline are the 5-act Shakespearean structure and the 4-act structure from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.
The Shakespearean model
Obviously the five acts traditionally cover the entire play, but I’m using them to represent the stages in the development of one of my minor POV characters. The first chapter from his point of view introduces him and shows his conflicts, problems, and goals. In his second chapter, he meets people who are trying to stop him. The third time he shows up, the conflict reaches its height, and he has it out with one of the people who is picking on him. In his fourth chapter, we see the fallout from that fight. And in his fifth chapter, he has a final showdown in which he proves that he’s learned something.
The Story Beat-up model
Another model that I’m experimenting with for my minor characters is the 4-part plot structure used by Jeffery Alan Schechter in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story. Basically, he turns the classic 3-act structure into 4 parts by splitting the second act in the middle. And each one of these four parts, he says, corresponds to a character archetype: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr.
When the character is an Orphan, according to Schechter, he is alone and out of place. When he is a Wanderer, he is trying to move toward his goal, but can’t quite get there yet. Then, at the midpoint of the story, he becomes a Warrior; in other words, he takes charge and becomes active. Finally, in the last act, as a Martyr, he shows that he is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve his goal.
In Schechter’s book, he gives lots of examples, showing how to use this structure for an entire movie script. In my latest outline, though, I’m using it to give me an idea of what to do with minor characters who only show up a few times.
Here’s an example. Let’s imagine a story in which Bob and Susan are the main characters. They have the main storyline; the story is THEIR story. And the story will end when they live happily ever after, or die tragically in a blimp accident, or whatever. But let’s imagine a minor character in their story: a bartender they both know named Steve. Maybe he’s the bartender in the place where they meet for lunch. Maybe he’s only going to appear four times in the whole story. So how can we make sure Steve has his own arc?
Steve as Orphan (alone and out of his element): Bob and Susan meet at the bar, and we’ll assume their story has been going on for a while now. This scene might be twenty or thirty pages into the book. It’s only important to Steve, because this is the first time we see him. They say hello to him, indicate that they know him, and we discover that Steve hates his job and his manager is a jerk.
Steve as Wanderer (trying to figure out how to move forward, but not successful yet): Bob and Susan’s romance has progressed. They’ve had a few ups and downs, and maybe twenty or thirty more pages have passed. They go to the zoo on a date, and lo and behold, they run into Steve there. He’s looking glum and explains he’s been applying for a job there, but he doesn’t think he’ll get it. His great dream is being a zoologist, but he never finished his degree.
Steve as Warrior (becoming active, taking charge): The story goes on, and Bob and Susan’s romance has reached a crisis. Bob desperately needs help (perhaps a ride to the airport or something), and the only person he can turn to is Steve. And because Steve has failed to get a new job, he’s still at the bar, right where Bob can find him. Steve tells his nasty boss to shove it, drives Bob to the airport, and Bob goes off toward his happy ending with Susan (or their tragic blimp crash).
Steve as Martyr (showing what he’s learned and that he’s willing to give up something): At the end of the story, Steve realizes life is too short to be stuck in a job he hates. At Bob and Susan’s wedding (or their funeral, if they died on that blimp), he announces he has quit his job. He’s foregoing safety and stability, and going back to school to finish his PhD, so he can study marmosets in the wild, just like he always dreamed.
So there we go; Steve only appeared four times in the whole book, but he had a little storyline all his own. When you follow these models, like Schechter’s four-act structure, or the five-act Shakespearean structure, or the eight-act Hero’s Journey, it becomes a little easier to see what the minor characters should be doing. They’re not just standing around, passively watching the main characters; they’re acting independently and naturally as part of their own small story. They aren’t the main focus of the novel, of course, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have an arc of their own.