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My 40th high school reunion took place this week about 400 miles away. I didn’t attend. So I had a virtual reunion the following day: at home, in my sweats, looking at Facebook photos of people I haven’t seen for years. I recognized many of the women and almost none of the men, who seemed to have sent their middle aged fathers in their places.

I was deeply affected by a collection of photo booth pictures in which alums posed with spouses or besties from high school. I scrolled through the friends arm in arm and wondered aloud, “Were they actually best friends in high school? I don’t remember them even hanging out together.”

The more I scrolled, the more disoriented I felt. Then I got on the phone with my high school best friend, who had gone to the event, and she identified some of the unknowns and we chatted about who was there and who hung out together. She clued me in to some of the long term friendships I had missed, which was most of them.

I started obsessing about those friendships that had escaped my notice. Then I wondered why I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I blamed my own myopic nature for missing the connections around me as I grew up. I felt dull and unaware. I wondered if I still was.

What does this have to do with writing? you ask.

A lot.
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Relationships are everything in storytelling. I’ve been putting a lot of effort into establishing relationships in my main character’s family, his classmates and the people in his small village. But I haven’t thought much about the relationships in the background: how his brothers felt about each other, or how they feel about the kids down the road. Or whether or not my character’s mother has a friend in the village. I’ve kept my spotlight shined only on my main character and thus others stay in the dark, waiting only to come on stage when they are needed.

But now I can imagine a richer world. My character’s brothers could be competing over the affections of the same girl. His mother might feel alienated and lonely in the village, with no one to trade with or gossip with. His father could have a temper that the nearest neighbor witnesses, but keeps secret. His teacher may love the candle maker.

The best books have a thick web of connections, not all of which are directly related to the main character. Each new possibility offers new small plot contributions, denser air around the central story.

What are the unseen connections in your novel? How could you rethink the background relationships in your story? Perhaps what you haven’t paid attention to matters more than you think.

Comments

  1. Linden! So many unseen connections–in our lives and in our stories. Laura Schreiber, Editor at Hyperion, said at the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat last March said that when secondary characters are off stage, she likes to think of them as if they’re off being protagonists in their own novels, living their own lives. It is our job as writers to make sure our secondary characters are as layered as our protagonists. It is our responsibility in life, to make sure we remember that the world does not revolve around us.

  2. Well Done, Linden. 🙂

  3. Linden!! I LOVE this post….and wonderful perspective. Your last line nails it: “Perhaps what you haven’t paid attention to matters more than you think.” This very thing happened to me recently — as I neared the final third of my WIP, still muddling through the story trying to figure out what would actually HAPPEN as my MC battled her way toward the climax of her story. I still didn’t know what or who would trigger all of the important action that would need to ultimately fall into place. And then suddenly, there she was. A minor character who I hadn’t gotten to know at all (all she had at this point was a name and spot on my MC’s middle school basketball team) appeared RIGHT at the moment when my MC needed her most. Right at the moment when I needed her most. Those “AHA!” moments are rare — like tiny, glistening, hidden jewels. Grabbing hold of her and recognizing her importance has opened a whole new treasure chest of possibilities. These secondary characters can not only enhance our work–they can be absolutely critical to them. We just need to pay attention and be ready for the moments they decide to step into the spotlight. Thanks for your wonderful post!! xo

  4. Please name the secondary character who gossips over the fence with the lonely mother Susie.

    1. She usually remains anonymous since she’s an undercover FBI agent posing as a former high school student/writer. Luddington McGnarly is her alias, if you must know.

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