A Protagonist’s Best Friend: Creating Secondary Characters

Secondary characters are incredibly important to a story – ESPECIALLY a character who will be your protagonist’s close friend. It’s rare that I read a novel where the protagonist doesn’t have at least one strong ally, even if they tend to be loners. In YA and NA titles especially, I think it’s important the protagonist have a reliable friend, both because it helps the main character out as well as lets (teen) readers know it’s okay to ask for help when you need it from those who will support you. 

Friends are a support group. Friends give you a shoulder to cry on or confront your bullies or hold your hair back after partying too much because they care about you. You love them in a way that’s different from loving your family because you choose each other. (They got you through high school and college, for god’s sake.) There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my friends (except maybe jail time) and it should be no different with your characters. Readers may be reading a fantasy story, but they expect believability in their characters. Just as we laugh, cry, and defend our friends, so must our protagonist and their friends.

Secondary characters might not be the focus of your novel, but they’ll grow to be just as important as a protagonist. Without them, your main character might not get very far. For example, in GIFTED, Lucy befriends her roommate Delia and without her, Lucy might’ve given up and left the circus after a week. Delia, the secondary character, is the lifeline for Lucy’s introduction into the Donovan Circus. Through Delia, Lucy meets her new friends and coworkers, as well as gains a social life. And of course, when the battle comes into play, Lucy remembers that her friends (the secondary characters) are the reason she wants to fight. They are her family. She wants to save them and they are her reason for pushing through fear and taking on the enemy. They give Lucy the motivation to step up to a challenge. Without Delia and the others, Lucy might’ve caved and run away – and who really wants to read about a coward who stays a coward?

It’s also important to avoid cliches of a protagonist’s best friend. Readers get tired of the same old perky girlfriend. I admit, Delia is definitely a perky, helpful kind of character. She’s strong and sweet and is more than willing to do anything for her friends, including Lucy. Sounds like a lot of other best friend characters we’ve read, but that’s where it’s the writer’s job to step up and humanize the character into something different from other story characters. The idea is to make them stand out and stay away from the stereotypes. My way of avoiding that for Delia was to make her a Greek girl in an American world – she’s smart and friendly, sure, but her words and phrases get jumbled up, making readers giggle (plus Lucy becomes a sort of translator, which in turn helps them begin to understand each other’s sentences or thoughts – it solidifies their friendship because they grow to know each other so well). Delia’s quirks also include a love of sweets, specifically cookies, and while it sounds like a tiny, silly thing, it’s something that readers remember about her.

Harry Potter wouldn’t have gotten very far without Hermione and Ron. Katniss needed Peeta to get her through the crazy. Simon stuck by Clary’s side even after he discovered she wasn’t who she thought she was. See what I’m getting at? Best friends help round out your protagonist, giving them goals as well as help when they get stuck.

By the way, if you want to learn more about Delia, I’ve got a fun character interview with her here. Learn a bit more about her, including her personality, favorite things to do, and of course, learn her favorite cookie.

How to: Kick Insecurity in the Ass (Writer Style)

That old feeling crept up on me again. The one that says I’m not good enough, that my lower-starred reviews are telling me to give up, that I can’t force a story out of my head no matter how hard I try.

Sometimes you just wish you could strangle that pessimistic bastard in your head, right? I know I do.

It’s no surprise authors get their nerves in a twist, especially before a new release. Even well-known authors who have scores of well-reviewed books get the jitters, because the new book is, well, new. Different characters, different plot, a whole new world of ways to make readers put your book down and walk away. That possibility is downright terrifying.

Feeling a little lonely and blue about your writing?

Feeling a little lonely and blue about your writing?

Then there’s my current problem – I’m working on the second Donovan Circus book and am having one of those days where I hate everything about it. It’s in its first draft and logically, I know first drafts are allowed to be shit. That’s why it’s only a first draft. But that little nagging voice in my head telling me it’s shit, telling me a 2 star reviewer is right, and telling me to go watch TV instead is still pretty loud and persistent. That little voice is telling me to give up, just for a few days.

I read a blog recently that talked about authors having a strange complex of both thinking they have THE book everyone should read, yet being terrified of everyone reading it for fear of criticism. I think this goes beyond authors into artists in general!

While I hold firm that you can’t please everyone, no matter how well you write, I still say that we need to conquer the fear. Because you know what? If you give up for a day or a month, what’s to stop that from turning into a year or forever? I’ve read several quotes lately about how it’s better to try and fail than it is to never try at all. And I have to say, that resonates.

One suggestion to get over your book blues? Go read your positive reviews. Those good reviews mean you have fans, readers who will probably give your new books a chance because they loved the other one(s) so much. I know it makes me feel good and boosts my writing confidence when I read people saying that I have a future in writing, that they’ll read my next story and can’t wait for a sequel. It gets me excited to put my butt in the chair and write more, because people are clamoring for more of your worlds. Honestly, nothing has been more motivating to me than hearing such kind and enthusiastic words from readers, encouraging me to get on with the next book already.

You’re writing and releasing books because you believe it. You feel confident about it, that it’s a great story with well-developed characters and a plot that will keep you reader going to the next page. And despite whatever reviewers might say, you’re doing this because you love it, not because you expect a large paycheck (at least, I hope that’s why you’re doing it).

My other suggestion to get over that annoying voice is to prove it wrong. Sit down and write, even if you don’t feel like it. Even if you have to force it. Chuck Wendig wrote a great article yesterday about how writing is a job – it’s not about the muse or inspiration. Writing is work, hard work, and in order for the craft to be done, it requires you in that chair, your fingers clacking away at the keyboard. Put words to paper. Even if they’re shit (like my first draft), they’re words. You can go back and edit later to hit the high points, tweak the themes, and round out characters. But until you have that draft, you just have a blank document, sitting there, blinking at you to write. And honestly, isn’t that scarier than the voice in your head?

The Self-Publishing Stigma: Pushing Through Your Doubts

I had a bit of a dark moment the other morning. In fact, I think I could say it’s the first time I’ve ever felt that “oof” gut punch since starting on my indie author road.

Last week, I got interviewed for a piece about my books for my alma mater’s magazine. I was ecstatic. I told my husband, my mom, and oh, yes, Facebook. And then, on Monday morning, I got an email from the person, with an apology saying that they wouldn’t be including me in the next issue. Why?

Because I’m self-published, with no agent or publisher behind my work.

Oof.

It doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise – after all, I’m not the first person to be turned away due to being a self-published author. I know the stigma that comes with being an indie and most times, I  understand why some people wouldn’t want to take a chance on reading an indie’s books or feature them when there are so many other published authors out there.

But this time felt different. It was the first time someone had made me feel like I wasn’t a “real author.” And the more I thought about it, the longer I spent my day in a bad mood. I felt sorry for myself and grouched about it to my husband and a couple pals. I was too embarrassed to tell Facebook my interview wouldn’t be in the next issue, hoping they’d forget about it before they searched for it. I didn’t necessarily question life choices or anything, but I was definitely feeling a little blue about the fact I was being held back because I was self-published.

The stigma of “bad self-published books” is slowly dying, but it still has a ways to go. Most people assume that “self-published” means “not good enough to make it in the book world” which, as we here all know, is utter bullshit.

Sure, there are some books out there that probably shouldn’t be out there. There are plenty of books with typos and grammatical errors and formatting issues (not all of them are self-published, either). There are definitely stories that are odd and poorly written, with little to no plot or character development. It doesn’t make my books bad and it doesn’t mean people shouldn’t self-publish.

I told my Smurf-blue self these facts all day long. It eased the sting, sure. “Every indie author goes through this,” I told myself.

Then I remembered something.

I don’t march to anybody else’s drum, dammit. When I wanted to work in radio, I elbowed my way into every door until it got me an internship at ClearChannel. It was the best summer of my life. When I wanted to be a photographer, my best friend and I started a photography business. We didn’t make much money, but we had more fun than I can possibly explain. And when I wanted to be a writer – more than a magazine writer, but a novelist with books for everyone to see – I self-published my first book and became part of an indie community with some of the best and most supportive friends I could ever ask for.

I believe in my work – it’s why I self-published. I have never, not once, regretted my decision. My sales are picking up. Both books have pretty stellar reviews. I have friends, family, and total strangers not only reading my work, but asking, no, demanding for more. I obsess over my characters and feel that overwhelming sense of satisfaction when I figure out a plot problem or finish a chapter. I’m doing what I love.

And I’m going to let an entire day be ruined because a magazine told me it was against policy to include self-published books?

Liz Long, you idget, get over it. Go write another book that you’re going to self-publish. Because it’s what you pride yourself in, what you believe in, and what you love. For all you know, your fifth or fiftieth book could pick up enough attention to attract a publisher – and you might not even want their hands on it. Who knows?

The alma mater helped mold me into who I am – a citizen leader who doesn’t curl up and take it, but rather stands tall and pushes forward. So what if they can’t include me in the Books section of their magazine?

Make them sit up and pay attention. Write so many good books they have no choice but to talk about their 2007 alumni Liz Long and how she pushed through the crowd to make a name for herself. “It’s what she’s always done,” they might say, “It’s what she’ll always do.”

To all those indie authors who occasionally get the smurfy blues – believe in yourself. And go write something you’re proud to have on your shelf.

The Best Writing Advice Ever: Write What You Want to Read

We can all be picky readers. We know what we like, what genres we prefer, and are often cautious when picking up a new book outside the realm of our usual pages. I know what kinds of plots I love or what sort of romances drive me up the wall.

Four years ago, I set out to read a story that would stick with me.

I wanted to read a story about a strong girl who didn’t need to be rescued, who put logic ahead of emotion and thought things through. I wanted to read about a supernatural group of misfits who weren’t necessarily vampires or werewolves. I wanted a story full of mystery, one that would confuse and worry me as much as the main character when she discovers the information. And I wanted a little bit of romance, but not so much that it takes away from the plot or consumes the heroine’s thoughts.

I couldn’t find a story like that, not one that I truly thought had all those parts. So you know what I did?

I wrote it.

When I wanted to read a story with witches and murder and raise the hairs on the back of my neck, I bet you can guess what I did.

Yep. I wrote it.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever read was to write what you want to read. I know – it sounds simple. But really, isn’t that why we set out to write the story we did?

With my stories, I knew that these were the kinds of books that I would pick up in a bookstore for a closer look at the cover, that the back cover blurb would be enough to draw me in and at least make me give it a chance. And right now you’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking I’m only saying these things because I’m the author, but hand to heaven, these are the kind of books I’d read. But since they’re not out there, I took matters into my own hands.

If you think you’ve got a story full of interesting characters and a dynamic plot, WRITE IT. Short story, flash fiction, full on novel, whatever – readers who are tired of the same old thing will  want to read it. A few of my key compliments to GIFTED was that it was “a breath of fresh air” and a “unique story” because it’s unlike anything else on the market.

Turns out, other people are looking for those kinds of stories too. They’re giving me a chance because I wrote what I wanted to read. I’m proud to be an author of that kind of story. I think you will be, too.