Knowing your Secondary Characters

So I’m knee-deep in my revision of SUGAR ON SNOW right now.  I’m sitting on the sun porch with my coffee and a nice breeze from the lake, merrily checking off all the little revision jobs my editor asked me to consider in her editorial letter.  I’ve been moving right along, which is a good thing because the publication date for this book is likely being moved up to Fall 2010.  And I’ve been getting lots done this week and feeling good about the revision.  But I’ve just come to a screeching halt.  Because editor MK says:

Claire’s Mom – I wanted to see more of her. Claire spends a lot of time away from home, but I think the addition of a scene between them would help us get a better idea of who Claire is and where she comes from…..  What does her mother really think of all the skating?  What would her mom say about how Claire has changed?

And so I started adding a new scene with Claire and her mom together in the kitchen of their farmhouse.  They are sewing sequins onto Claire’s skating dress, and Claire’s mom looks at her and says….

I don’t know.

Because I’ve just realized that I don’t know Claire’s mom the way I need to know her to make this scene real.  I know the "Mom-of-the-moment" and how she spends her days, but I’m not entirely sure who Mom used to be. That feels important now, before I can move forward.

So I’ll be here on page 109 for a while.  I thought I’d do a little thinking-aloud on the blog, for process fans. Here are the questions I’m considering:

Right now, Mom’s whole life seems to be Claire and the boys and the maple farm. Who was she before?  When she was 16, before she met Claire’s dad, what did she want to be when she grew up?

She loves the maple farm, loves the work her family does there.  Why?

What does Mom think about while Claire is skating in Lake Placid?  What are her worries?  What is she hoping for Claire?

What was Mom’s relationship with her own parents like?

What makes Mom feel talented and special? What used to make her feel that way when she was a teenager?

Did Mom have a dream she didn’t get to follow or chose not to follow? 

What changes has Mom noticed in Claire since she started training in Lake Placid?

Mom is a listener, but Claire hasn’t had time to talk much about all this.  What has Mom heard from her? And what is she wondering about?

Where did Mom learn how to sew?  (And does Claire already know, or is Mom teaching her during this conversation, too?)

Time to shut down the laptop for a bit… This part of the process is a pen and notebook thing for me. 

What about you?  What are your favorite strategies for making secondary characters ring true?

23 Replies on “Knowing your Secondary Characters

  1. Kate, thanks for this wonderful list. I love that you and your editor are in synch of this–that must feel great.

    Typically, I try and make sure I know my secondary characters’ goals–not just their big ones, but their specific goals for every scene they’re in. But this list is great. I’ve got a couple of love interests in my WIP who are (both) doing way too much of the strong, silent thing, and I know it’s because I don’t know them well enough. I think you’ve given me some great ideas to work with!

  2. I have to walk with it, for a long time, having the conversation in my head until I ‘hear’ the character’s answers, coming from them. For me, it helps a lot if I can walk in a similar setting to where I’m writing (which may be very helpful for you here, if Claire’s mom is a North Country girl)

  3. This is totally awesome. The evolution of characters is always fascinating. One question I expected to see but didn’t was a continuation of Claire’s mom’s whole life being Claire and the maple farm – from who was she *before* to “How did the maple farm become so important to her?”
    You said you didn’t know Claire’s mom very well, but is that covered elsewhere? For me, that would be an important part of her development and would impact her ability to relate to Claire in HER development and growth as a person.

  4. Kate, would you mind if I kept this amazing list for my own use? I’m having the urge to use them (or the essence of them) for every parent I’ve ever written about in my WIPs.

  5. This is a great list of questions! I need to do some similar digging with one of my love interests. I’ve been thinking of writing a scene from his POV just for my own edification.

  6. Great post, Kate!

    I do the pen and notebook thing too when I’m trying to figure things out about my characters. I keep it with me all the time so when snippets of conversations start floating around in my head, I write them down, then I build the scene I want to write from there.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kate. 😀

  7. I do love my editor at Walker – she gets just as excited about my novels as I do, and we had a great conversation on the phone yesterday after I read her editorial letter.

    I like your reminder about secondary characters’ goals – especially for those individual scenes. Thanks!

  8. Hmmm…that’s a great question and one that I actually know the answer to. I had a long drive today and did some journaling as Claire’s mom on the ferry ride.

  9. I actually did some journaling from the POV of Claire’s mom while I was in the car today (on the ferry…not driving, so don’t worry!). Even though the scene won’t be from her point of view, it helped immensely.

  10. It’s fascinating to me that while I thought I knew this story inside and out, it wasn’t until my editor asked that question and I sat down to write that scene that I realized how much I DIDN’T know about Mom. The back-and-forth at this point in the revision is really one of my favorite parts of the process.

  11. Me too – but I have a bad habit of keeping too many notebooks at once. Every so often, I’ll find a little snippet too late to use in the book and think, “Darn! That would have been perfect.” Thanks for reminding me to go back and check ALL the notebooks!

  12. Can I throw a few more out for you? Where is Claire living? Does she live with a family? Her coach? A sports lodge? If any of those, is mom worried about being replaced? Does she worry that Claire isn’t being brought up with the same standards/ideals, etc. as should would instill? Does she worry about the finacials of it all (I know Claire’s on scholarship, but where’s the $ come from?)? Is there a danger of the scholarship running out?

    Having lived Claire’s life, if you need to bounce anything, let me know. Sounds like you’re way past that point and in a great place with it all, though.

  13. Oh my goodness! Me, too! My daughter scolds me every time I look at a display of Moleskins with “Mom, don’t you have enough of those?” And I do! Too many, actually, all partially filled with ideas, dialogue, etc. I also have other notebooks I pick up now and then that just beg me to write something in them. . . it’s nice to know someone is as notebook obsessed as I am.


  14. Since you asked . . .

    Think about Mom from Claire’s p.o.v., too – is she different now than she was when Claire was young? Has she always been a homebody? Does Mom skate? Is Claire living out Mom’s secret dream? That sort of stuff. Because sometimes, it’s not important what the truth of Mom’s existence is, but what Claire’s perception or understanding of it is that matters.

  15. Great questions. The only one I’d add from the top of my head …
    If Claire’s mom were to talk to a friend/confidante/family member about Claire, how would their conversation go?

    But my guess is, if you haven’t figured the scene out by now, it’ll come soon. You’re definitley doing the right things.