The Fire in Fiction – The “Easy” Stuff

Why is it that some of the easiest-sounding writing advice is the easiest to forget when you’re at the keyboard?

Chapter 2 of The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass discusses the importance of secondary characters and the fact that so many of them are bland. I know I’ve got them in my novel manuscript and the short stories I’m presently revising.

Maass suggests so many of these flat supporting characters exist because writers fear they will outshine the protagonist, but that’s just not true. Think of the Harry Potter novels. How many secondary characters can you name that are memorable, quirky, and feel essential in some way? Hint: a lot. At no point in those novels do they lessen Harry’s significance. The same is true in other fantasy novels I adore: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. In fact, strong secondary characters enhance the protagonist’s story by providing a surface on which the main character’s decisions resonate.

Maass suggests making secondary characters stand out by detailing the effects they have on the protagonist, making them exceptional or quirky in some significant way, and, in the case of antagonists, making them human and giving them agency. These are some things I’m definitely planning on carrying into revisions on my novel manuscript.

Chapter 3 looks at making scenes shine. Here’s what Maass suggests:

  1. Identify moments in your scenes where something changes for your protagonist. Make it clear by the end of the scene how that change affects the character’s situation and their understanding of who they are.
  2. Make the stakes for your protagonist clear at the outset of each scene. By the end of the scene, readers should see how your character drew nearer or farther from their goal.
  3. Look for flab that can be cut from your dialogue. Dialogue, Maass argues, is one of the most succinct ways to raise stakes and move a story along.
  4. Heighten the impact of significant plot events by highlighting the effect the event has on more than just your protagonist. Look at how the event shapes your secondary characters or the world itself.

A lot of this advice seems straight-forward, but it’s easy to forget when you’re juggling plot and still figuring out where the story is headed. Keeping these things in mind might help you avoid more time-consuming edits down the line. I wish I had read them sooner…

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