Monday, March 14, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 6: The Role of Secondary Characters

When I was in my 20s, I still thought I could change the world. Aren't we all predisposed to such thinking at that age? I worked for the Boy Scouts, mostly because I believed in it, but part of the reason was that the Boy Scouts provided me with roam and board at summer camp. I feel like I could have stayed in the woods forever. Josh Zeigler and I used to pass the late hours laughing at our great fortune of Camp Dietler. If for no other reason than we always had a home from late May until mid-August. Josh spent his autumns in school and his winters on the ski slopes. We would concoct ways of living outside forever.
Camp Dietler made way for Camp Morrison and later Camp Cooper. Camp Cooper became wildly populated with old friends: Josh and David Jones from Camp Dietler, Roland ad Rachel and Jen from my neighborhood in Northwest Portland. The latter group were the people I spent days, or rather, nights with, walking the lights of bars along NW 21st Avenue. Roland, for a long spell was my only friend. He was a great friend to have, being the biggest, and often times, the gentlest creature I have ever known. A deep-voiced man formerly of Vermont, he was the bouncer at my favorite club. Rachel and Jen came to me during the haunts of places like the Gypsy and Anna Banana's. Rachel and I would often drink beer from brown paper bags clad cans along the railroad tracks talking literature, Haruki Murakami namely.
The wild progress of people in and out of my like, like the idea of changing the world, was very age appropriate. For that, the people, the times, I dearly loved the work I did with the Boy Scouts of America.
At the end of the century, I was preparing for a long and rainy winter. I spent Tuesday evenings with Emily, my dear friend who got out of work early on Tuesday nights. She worked the front of the house bistro called Blue Tango, since defunct, on NW 23rd. I spent Wednesdays with Roland, and Thursdays I was with Chris Otto. Otto and I drove the quiet streets of downtown Portland after dark theorizing the state of affairs in America. At the time it was the issue of gays in leadership roles within the Boy Scout system and the impending doom of Y2K. Obviously, we thought the issues of the day were nonsense. Plenty of gay people have children, and those children can benefit from the Boy Scout program too. There are only two sides of the issue as far as I was concerned: a person is either a good role model for a child, or they are not, and it has nothing to do with being gay. And Y2K? It seems even less stupid no than it was then.
Otto and I talked a lot about the future. Sadly, I was still hung up on the past. I was toying with the notion that I was selling out on my life as a writer by becoming a young executive. Otto was convinced I could be both. Years later, my attorney, Eric Driskill, would tell me the same thing. Reoccurring theme?
But back in the fall of 1999, I was certain the world would change. Y2K, no. The new century? Maybe, who knew?
At Thanksgiving, a whole group of us decided to spend the weekend in Vancouver, BC. One by one the group dwindled. Otto, decided to relax at home with his wife for the long weekend. He was the first one out. He had been working to grow his numbers at work since October. He was tired, and I knew it. Chris Howk was the second one out. We all worked together, and he was feeling a bit like Otto, I suspected. I mean, really, when we worked sixty plus hours a week, who wanted to run like wild banshees all weekend?
I went to Vancouver alone.
In the rainy drive up, I called Ellie in San Francisco. She was riding the failing wave of the dotcom debacle at the time. As I drove over the international border separating Washington State from British Columbia, she gave me real time directions to hotels she thought might appeal to me.
I found myself at a bar shortly thereafter and I was engaged in The Writer, and in particular, an article making a rather compelling argument about the use of secondary characters as a tool to push the plot along.
Like the bible, right? Each one of those soandso begot soandso is nothing more than secondary characters. True enough. Like Balzac too. Although all of Balzac's secondary characters eventually got their own book. Like Steinbeck, one character after another in Cannery Row. Like the vast interviews in part 2 of Roberto BolaƱo's Savage Detectives.
All right, I remember thinking, I'll bite.
So, in the Guerrilla Novel, where does that leave us?
In my own experience, particularly with Dysphoric Notions, and a rather pathetic account of the Thanksgiving trip called 24 Hours in Vancouver, I used hundreds of secondary characters. Many of these characters get a paragraph or two for no other reason than to illustrate a point.
As the novel process progresses, ask yourself about your secondary characters. Do you have any? Too often we get so centered on the action at hand and it becomes too focused, too mechanical. Write out a little vignette involving a character not directly involved and then embed them in the story. For instance, if your central character had a fireman fetish, or a librarian fetish, you may want to write in the circumstance that developed that. Like a childhood thing. Now, this may function as a back story exposition, but it is a secondary character to do it for you.
Also, in your narrative, there may arise a situation when a secondary character does something, says something in order to change the idea or direction of events. How often in life do we have a brush encounter with a stranger that makes us think differently?
This week, your task: write a few vignettes with these secondary characters and apply it to your work.

As always, good luck and keep writing.

No comments:

Post a Comment