Taking the Lead: Foreground Characters

So…the other week I posted about background characters, inspired by a post by RR Willica and S. Hunter Nisbet. This is part two. I’ve included the links to the initial posts at the end so you can send some love their way and check out their most excellent blogs!

 

When we speak of background characters vs. foreground, how do you divide them?

This is something that normally comes out when I’m outlining (and I’m just going to state, for the record, that in my case and outline is really more like guidelines. It evolves. IN SECRET KEPT and MIDNIGHT HOUR are both a case in point). I know who the story is about, who it revolves around. Background characters may have varying strengths of voice, and sometimes that will surprise me. In MIDNIGHT HOUR, which has a much larger cast than SECRET, I can still point to it and say “Raoul is the MC”, though he’s not the only POV.

 

At the start of a new story do you have your characters decided or do you just take off running?

Um…I mostly have them figured out. Mostly. But they get clearer in the writing and that’s when I realize some of things I thought they were don’t work. In terms of who’s protagonist or antagonist, though, that doesn’t change. I have that nailed down to begin with or I can’t write.

The thing with MIDNIGHT HOUR that surprised me, though, was the strength of the voice of some more minor characters. Though I wouldn’t call them mains, they’re getting POV chapters because they literally won’t shut up. And I realized that their voices are integral to the story. Given that I’m writing about a band of misfits, you need to understand how they all work together. Since the story is centered on those relationships and how they play out in the face of the evil they’re about to face, knowing who they are as individuals and collectively is crucial.

 

Do you find it’s easier to write multiple POVs vs one character?

Ha. Hahahahahaha. I’ve been writing mostly single POV for a long time. SECRET is mostly told from Alodia’s POV, though I’ll flip to Rinan because the story is about the both of them and it’s necessary to see both sides. MH is…so different. It’s a larger cast with about 5 POVs (that includes my villain). And it’s much more of a challenge because while SECRET was very linear, MH is not. The first 3 chapters are the same night from 3 different POVs. The challenge here is keeping all the threads from getting tangled, and making sure they all converge at the appropriate time so as to resonate emotionally and plot-wise. It’s something I’ve never done before and it terrifies me – which is, as a friend of mine pointed out, a sign that it’s the story I’m supposed to tell.

In terms of choosing who gets a POV…the characters chose it themselves. Obviously Raoul would get one and so does Esmera. But then Amadi and Min proved to be very significant voices as well, so there we go. Other, smaller, POVs may pop up as needed but it’s not something I’ll know right away. It’s something I’ll learn in the telling when I sense there’s a hole.

 

Do you write with a large time-scale?

Somebody get me a TARDIS, stat.

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Time scale is my weakness. I always have a loose idea—actually, scratch that. “Loose idea” is being way to generous. I have a wibbly wobbly timey wimey spacey wacey idea of how long things will take. It’s something I continue to struggle with and usually have to go back and fix things in revision. I am RUBBISH with time-scale.

 

What genre would you classify your novel?

SECRET is high fantasy, definitely (and there are many more stories in that world to come, and I can’t wait to tell them).

MIDNIGHT HOUR is dreadpunk/steampunk/fantasy. If you are unfamiliar with dreadpunk, it is homage to the Victorian horror novel (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.). And the thing about Victorian horror is it was never (or not always) just about the horror – it was the Victorian’s way of dealing with the taboo. And that makes it so much fun to play with. A great tv example of dreadpunk is PENNY DREADFUL (still haven’t seen it, but I need to…Timothy Dalton and Eva Green? Hello.).

Most of my novels/stories are either a fantasy variant or science fiction. This is my happy place.

 

Do you specifically cast your foreground characters’ gender and appearance or do they create themselves?

I touched on this in my previous post about background characters, so you can read it there. But this also brings to mind the question of language because I’m a language nut and I speak four (and have a tendency to shout at idiot drivers in Russian, ahem). SECRET and MIDNIGHT HOUR both contain non-English languages. To give real-world equivalents for MH: Raoul is French, Esmera is Arab, Amadi is Nigerian, Min is Chinese. So sometimes they will say a word or short phrase in their own language, which, apart from the French, requires research. SECRET (well, actually RHEDA) was my first foray into writing with this dynamic and in getting into the issue of why we don’t italicize non-English languages. Daniel Jose Older has a fantastic video which you can watch HERE.

When it comes down to it, italicizing a language other than English is a way of marking it as other in the way that only mentioning the skin tone of a black person or Native American assumes that the default is white – and the world isn’t white any more than it’s English.

And it makes sense to me. I’m a native English-speaker from Québec, which is officially French. And in Québec we have major tension over language that really dates back to the time the French ceded the colony to British after they lost the war. So now we have this thing called the “Office québécois de la langue francaise”, also known as the language police. I kid you not.  It is entirely possible they will fine your business if, God help you, the English text on your signs is not half the size of the French. Government employees are not required to speak English and I have been discriminated against when it comes to jobs, simply because I’m not Francophone. Fluently bilingual and just as qualified, but as an Anglo — not good enough. So when I’m made to feel that my own language is “other” or “not good enough” then I’m not going to “other-fy” another language by italicizing it.

I would hasten to add that the reason for the existence of the OQLF is because somewhere down the line, they felt the same way. Also, not all Francophones discriminate nor are all Anglos open-minded. This works both ways. But the point remains.

And I mean…give the reader some credit. They don’t need you to point out a non-English word. They’ll get it.

Ok, so that was a rabbit trail. But it’s something else I’ve been thinking about.

Questions or thoughts? Leave me a comment!

 

Also, check out Part One of this series on S. Hunter Nisbet’s Blog

and

Part Two on RR Willica’s blog!

 

Send some love their way 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Taking the Lead: Foreground Characters

  1. Interesting thoughts on using a foreign language and the argument to italicize or not. It definitely bears further thought. I’d love to explore it further.

    The font size reminds me of making posters for theater productions, though. So many times there’s specifications: writer’s name has to be no less than half the size of the play title, ditto for lyricist and composer, name of the publisher, and a ton of other crap. This is absolutely maddening when those people aren’t famous and you know that locals are only going to see the show for what it is, not who wrote it, yet here we are making sure everyone knows that so-and-so wrote the lyrics. Sigh.

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    • Yep. There’s actually a little patisserie near where I live and he has the word “welcome” written on the window in (literally) 57 languages (give or take). Including French. But because the French was no prominent, the OQLF went after him — he’s one of the few who stood up for himself, and his loyal customers with him. Periodically, he’ll get another letter and then it starts all over again. *bangs head on desk*

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  2. Very interesting about the languages. Here we have a lot of people who speak Spanish as their native language and people get angry at them for not speaking English well enough. My great grandfather was the editor of the Italian newspaper in the 1930s, (which no longer exists,) and I often wonder if he faced the same discrimination.

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