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WHEN A CARDBOARD CUT-OUT BECOMES REAL

Today's guest is the author Lee Rowan, well known for her very popular historical Royal Navy series, among other books. Today, she talks about the importance of the secondary characters - and how they may often steal the show :).



Bio: I've been writing since childhood, but professionally only since spring of 2006, after learning my craft writing fanfiction for some 30 years. In earlier times I'd have been called "a lady of a certain age," old enough to know better but young enough to do it anyway. A confirmed bookaholic with a spouse of many years, I'm kept in line by a cadre of cats and a dog who get me away from the computer and out of the house at least once a day.

Until I was in my 40's, I thought romance was utterly unrealistic--a pretty dream, but little more. What I'd seen of relationships didn't seem worth the effort or the pain. A big-hearted dog and a few wonderful cats kept my own heart going, until, in the first weeks of the new millennium, I fell in love with a friend I'd known most of my adult life. How did that happen? Well, I'd just written Ransom, and I could not find anyone who was willing to read it and give me feedback. I got feedback--and the love of my life as well!

We have just celebrated our tenth anniversary as life-partners. In 2007, we moved to Canada, where our marriage is legally recognized. Real love isn't just a pretty dream, though. It's a lot of work--but it's worth every minute.

The stories I write are usually--not always--about two men, which may seem odd subject matter for a woman who's married to another woman. But ... well, so what? I write with my mind and heart, not with what's in my pants; I write the sort of stories I want to read. While many girls were dreaming of walking up the aisle and wondering what they'd name their children, I was dreaming of running away to sea or riding across the prairie, and wondering what I'd name my horse. I was intrigued by how people lived before cars, TV, modern medicine, and what touched my imagination were stories of adventure and adversity.

I never did get the horse... life ain't perfect. That's why we need dreams... and stories.

Love, honor, courage... those aren't male qualities or female qualities. They're the very best human qualities, and I think we all have the capacity to experience them, no matter how different we may be when it comes to sex, age, color, or any of the other tiny subcategories. We are all human, and we all have dreams.

I'd like to share some of mine, and so I write.


Visit Lee at her website and Live Journal.


NOTE: Lee's novel Ransom is a past Eppie winner and will be featured in the Library Journal's inaugural Best of BookSmack!, which will run in the February 15th issue.


The Royal Navy series has also been nominated in the Love Romances Best Of 2010 Awards in the Nest Historical category.

Last day for voting is TODAY (Sat 30), you can follow the links on My post.




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“There Are No Small Parts

….only small actors.”

That’s a truism in the theatre. I saw it demonstrated years ago, when my high school drama club put on “Exit the Body.” The talented young man playing the corpse stole the show with his inconvenient flopping and falling over. For many actors, that part would have been – well, just a stiff. But a little bit of imagination had the audience in stitches.

This works in fiction, too.

I've been doing a little freelance editing, and was working with a writer on a story where her two main characters were pretty well-rounded, but the secondary characters seemed a little flat—they came on, spoke or shouted their lines, and left the stage. I suggested she add a few lines here and there to give them a little more depth, and was delighted at her response—she already had more complex characters in her head, they just hadn’t made it to the paper. We were in business!


Characters in a story have a purpose to serve—but even if they only appear in two paragraphs, they can be presented in a way that lets you know they have a life offstage, too… and maybe a story of their own to tell. A good actor can take a small part and round it out. Since a writer is ‘acting’ all the parts, that’s up to us.

It doesn’t really take much to turn a cardboard cutout into a real person. An apparently downtrodden wife can be revealed as a Machiavelli with just a few words—have a friend ask how she tolerates her husband’s cheating, and her response can say it all: “Oh,those little people don't mean anything...” Or she could be a martyr, with a pained smile and “Yes, it’s my cross to bear until the children are grown,” or a woman just about ready to blow the whistle: “He might as well—since he brought home crabs he’s not getting in my bed.” An incidental character—a mailman, a waiter at an outdoor café—can become a person with an offstage life just by having a few dog biscuits in his pocket because he’s so fond of his own pet.

Gay romance—especially gay historical romance—creates a situation that demands the full-fledged background. Until relatively recently, a woman’s major duty was to find a husband and take care of him and their kids. These days, most women are forced by economic necessity to work—but many women I know still define their primary job as “mother,” at least while their children are young. (I’m not quarrelling with this—there’s no more demanding job than 24/7 childcare.) But for men it’s usually otherwise.

I always have a niggling sense of disbelief when I read a gay romance where one of the heroes is apparently there only as a love interest. Yes, he’s gorgeous, hot, sweet, brilliant… but what does he do? What will he be doing ten years down the road? At the back of my mind is a line from an interview with actor Jamie Bamber, who was enjoying his current TV role on Battlestar Galactica because his character got to do a lot of different things. He said—I’m paraphrasing here—"a man has to do things. A man defines himself by what he does." That observation has been useful to me as a writer—I think most men do define themselves that way. So do a lot of women, of course—I’ve always had a bit of “I am a (writer, massage therapist, animal-lover, etc.)but in an historical, a woman might define herself primarily as wife, homemaker, childcare specialist, and social secretary… and in a romance, it’s a given that her primary goal would be to find and marry a man who would fill the role of husband, provider, and responsible father to her children.

In either case, the idea of “what you do is who you are” creates a good questionnaire to fill out for any character, major or minor. How does this guy see himself, besides (if this is a romance) being a man who wants an authentic relationship? What does he do? What does he want to do? What sort of education does he have? Did his parents push him in one direction or another? If gay, is he out to his family? What’s his relationship with them? Does it affect how he relates to his lovers? What are his finances like—does he have a handy trust fund, or is he living paycheck-to-paycheck? What are his political beliefs? Is he religious? How much time does he spend on the job? I read a story once that was totally spoiled for me by the heroes having complex, demanding jobs… and that part of the story was a blank. The writer completely ignored their day-to-day reality and only wrote about them together, in and out of bed. It was as if they existed in a vacuum, and the story was a complete disappointment. I couldn’t believe they were real.

That isn’t as important for supporting roles, of course. You don't have to do this background for every character... but it wouldn't take more than a few lines, and the more fully you develop these characters, the more likely they are to show up again in their own stories. I started wondering about David Archer’s extended family, and wound up writing him a cousin who needed his own novella, See Paris and Live, one of the few m/f stories I’ve done. This cousin came in very handy in the sequel to Ransom and as a continuing character in the series. In Walking Wounded, I had a minor character appear for one scene, then suddenly thought, “Well, hey, who says all the gay characters have to be handsome young men?” and wound up with a walk-on bit player who startled both me and my leading men.


Giving the bit players in my stories a little more to do has made writing more interesting for me – and, I hope, for my readers.As a reader, I always appreciate it when another writer takes that extra care. Charlie Cochrane’s Dr. Panesar is a wonderful bit player in her Lessons In Love series, and I’m still hoping Erastes does something with the supporting character of Mordecai from Frost Fair. The more threads we weave into the fabric of our make-believe world, the more real the story becomes. And isn’t ‘suspension of disbelief’ the goal of anyone who writes fiction?




~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Follow this month with Clare - and the goodies so far:

JAN 25: The release of the anthology WISHING ON A BLUE STAR at Dreamspinner Press.
JAN 26: The ornery muse who plagues bittermint!
JAN 27: The exotic illustrations that inspire author Cornelia Grey.
JAN 27: The 5 favourite tropes of tracyrae.
JAN 28: FREE FICTION DAY, including new stories and links to plenty of others. Follow my LJ-tag "free fiction day" to find all 13 posts.


JAN 17: The business/pleasure balance of writing from libby_drew.
JAN 18: Why M/M? And who wants to know? from jordan_c_price.
JAN 19: What makes fiction short and sweet for jenre.
JAN 20: The pursuit of beautiful things by wrenboo.
JAN 21: Bawdy and brazen humor in the new release from Rick R. Reed.
JAN 22: Sexy or sweet, men in fiction? asks dontkickmycane.
JAN 23: The release of my short story THREADBARE at JMS books.
JAN 24: Where are all the star-crossed lovers? asks josephine_myles.



JAN 08: A great new novel and sequel from mickieashling.
JAN 09: Fiction and beautiful illustrations from essayel.
JAN 10: Forthcoming menage release from lc_chase.
JAN 11: Fabulous mix of SF and erotic romance from Sloane Taylor and Robert Appleton.
JAN 12: Follow the bizarre photographic history of Wind in Hair Guy with egret17.
JAN 13: When only your family understands the joke, with charliecochrane.
JAN 14: A top 10 of gay books you should read from erastes.
JAN 15: Favourite worldwide travel with cdn_tam.
JAN 16: 10 cautionary tales from ZA Maxfield! zamaxfield.



JAN 01: A FREE short from me, revisiting Nic and Aidan from Sparks Fly.
JAN 01: Delicious m/m icons from luscious_words.
JAN 02: Why I want to be a Bond villain! by chrissymunder.
JAN 03: The world of inspiration between 'historical' and 'contemporary' with stevie_carroll.
JAN 04: Some fascinating Swedish proverbs from 1more_sickpuppy.
JAN 05: A round-up of a great year just gone from angelasstone.
JAN 06: The countryside and history that inspires author sandra_lindsey.
JAN 07: The challenge of trying to balance edits, with diannefox and anahcrow.


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Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
charliecochrane
Jan. 29th, 2011 11:49 am (UTC)
Classy article, Lee. Your point about a small line of dialogue saying a lot should be made into posters and given to every aspiring writer (and some whose books I get from the library!) They could also take a lesson from the economically effective way you portray Davy's family in Home is the Sailor.

Dr. Panesar thanks you for the mention. I wonder if he comes across vividly because I feel I know him so vividly?

lee_rowan
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:59 pm (UTC)
Davy's family had to be shown sparingly because there are so many of them. When I gave him that crowd back in Ransom I never expected I'd have to trot any of them out onstage.

Is Dr. P based on anyone in particular?
charliecochrane
Jan. 29th, 2011 06:27 pm (UTC)
When I gave him that crowd back in Ransom I never expected I'd have to trot any of them out onstage

Well, you've painted nice pen portraits of them.

Dr P originates with the wonderfully eccentric Monty Panesar, the England cricketer. Then he goes off in his own direction!
lee_rowan
Jan. 29th, 2011 06:44 pm (UTC)
A jock--I should've known!
stevie_carroll
Jan. 29th, 2011 02:54 pm (UTC)
An excelent post, and one that I agree with completely.

My current example of a minor character who developed a lot more depth after starting off with one line is Craig the Aussie barman. He was originally there to give directions, and show that my protagonist wasn't the first outsider to come to the area that decade, but then I started thinking about why he was working in the back of beyond ouside the tourist season. From that came a very important subplot which really fleshed out the chief suspect in my protagonist's investigation.
lee_rowan
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC)
Australia's terrain and history gives a lot of scope for interesting, quirky characters. Which story is that in? I hate to admit it, but I haven't done nearly as much reading as I'd like.
stevie_carroll
Jan. 29th, 2011 08:29 pm (UTC)
It's my current WiP. I'm hoping to get the first draft finished sometime in the next month.


Edited at 2011-01-29 08:29 pm (UTC)
lee_rowan
Jan. 29th, 2011 08:36 pm (UTC)
Well, that explains why the description rang no bells...
wrenboo
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:07 pm (UTC)
This was a thought-provoking post for me. I have latched on especially to thinking in terms of "walk on" parts. The story as a play, with the characters entering and exiting, is a fresh image for me. It makes it easier to think of those with the bit parts and how silly it would be to have them waltz across the stage, saying one line before they disappear again.
lee_rowan
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Back in high school, I had to choose between drama club and the school paper because they both met at the same time. I went with writing, because fiction was always my goal... and when you're writing the story, you get to play all the parts!
cdn_tam
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC)
On the other hand, when you write such great supporting characters, we readers start hounding you to write their story when you may never have intended to go beyond one page with them. :-) Although I suppose that's a sign you did a great job. If we don't care about them, we are unlikely to ask for more about them.

I agree with you about the jobs for guys though. It's a very guy thing and I do find it annoying when someone is a waiter for instance but is able to go out for dinner and a movie 4 times a week. Um. When do you work? That is primarily an evening job. Or other convenient forgetting of the basics of a life. We readers do notice sometimes.
lee_rowan
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
If a supporting character is interesting enough to get people asking about him (or her) then I'm happy to be hounded.

And I expect readers to notice if something's realistic... I do, and I generally assume that my readers are at least as observant as I am (and possibly better informed.)
becky_black
Jan. 29th, 2011 06:48 pm (UTC)
I love minor character who end up shining. If there's one thing I can't stand is what I call "minor character in a cupboard". This is it feels like they get put away in a cupboard between the scenes they are in, rather having any sense of them having a life of their own which sometimes happens to intersect with that of the main characters.

I've had minor characters get uppity on me a few times, giving themselves bigger roles than I planned, or just generally being more fun than I expected. My favourite ist still Major Jax from my 2007 NaNoWriMo. She was meant to be just kind of a bitch, who sided with and got used by the villain, but she stubbornly kept a strong hold of her own agenda and when in the end she helped out the hero's side (without ever having any interaction with the hero for the whole story!) she was still acting for her own reasons. And the people who've read the story usually like her - so she never became a bitch! I introduced her with: Major Jax had a personal code. She never sold herself to a man she outranked. Which I still think is quite a good hook for a character. :D
lee_rowan
Jan. 29th, 2011 07:03 pm (UTC)
And a sensible practice... especially if men in your universe have the same trouble respecting women who out rank them as we see in 2010 Earth. Which, according to many guys, would indeed qualify her as a bitch, but in the best possible way -- fierce, loyal, tolerating no shit (see icon.)
kz_snow
Jan. 30th, 2011 02:14 am (UTC)
What's that adorable icon's name and backstory, Lee? I have one who looks quite similar, but with shorter hair and a blue eye. (Notice the use of "who." It's obvious you have a fellow dog-lover in the house. *g*)
lee_rowan
Jan. 31st, 2011 01:44 am (UTC)
That's Waya... with me for 16 years, and if I could have clipped a couple of years off my life and given them to her in dog-years it'd have been a bargain. Sixteen wasn't bad for a Shepherd-Chow, but it wasn't long enough. Does yours have Husky or blue-merle Aussie?

Of course it's "who!" An animal is a being, not an object.
kz_snow
Jan. 31st, 2011 02:23 am (UTC)
Waya -- a beautiful name for a beautiful creature! The breed mix of our Cody eludes us. Part shepherd, definitely, but I'm afraid most mutts from animal shelters have rather murky lineages. Cody's girlfriend, another shelter dog, also has one blue eye but an entirely different appearance.

We love them nonetheless and will be grateful if we can enjoy their companionship for 16 years. :)
lee_rowan
Jan. 31st, 2011 02:41 am (UTC)
I always called her my "best of breeds." It took two dogs to fill her pawprints: an Aussie-Husky (we think) who's about 4, and a rowdly puppy whose mom was a Shepherd and dad was a Lab-Collie. Cassie's a graceful little girl--40 lbs--but she has complete authority over Watson, who is almost twice her weight at 7 months. Both rescues, of course.
kz_snow
Jan. 31st, 2011 02:56 am (UTC)
Funny -- isn't it? -- how those little girls can be so dominant. Cody, a big galoot, is completely cowed by smart and slender Lady Luna. It's all in the attitude!
lee_rowan
Jan. 31st, 2011 03:10 am (UTC)
And agility. She dives under his elbow, grabs the collar, and flips him on his back. I never saw dog judo before!
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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