This is no. 58 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Families, however troubled, have their own unique way of functioning, like a single organism that holds its secrets, memories, habits, and narratives close. In my new novel, The Prettiest Star, the central story is about the Jacksons, who are learning to be with one another again after twenty-four-year-old Brian, who has recently found out he is HIV-positive, returns home after six years away in New York City. I wanted the novel—which is told from the perspectives of Brian, his younger sister, and his mother—to wrestle with internal family dynamics, but I quickly realized, in order to understand the Jacksons individually and as a family, I also needed them to engage with characters outside their immediate circle.
Early on, I sent Brian’s younger sister, fourteen-year-old Jess, to the public swimming pool with a couple girls on her softball team. I had to get her away from her parents, brother, and relatives in order to understand how much the family secrets weigh on every moment of her life, but also to see Jess with more clarity—what makes her tick, what is she like? At the swimming pool, Jess feels both bored and uncomfortable around her teammates, who are only interested in impressing boys. When a couple of boys approach the girls, the scene also reveals a spark of resistance and sass in Jess I didn’t know she had. These minor characters brought tension and texture to the narrative, but also gave me insight into one of my major characters.
Sometimes, minor characters develop into key players—perhaps not quite major characters, but close. When Nick Marshall showed up in my novel, he was a minor character who quickly grew into one of my favorites and earned more time on the playing field. Nick is an outsider—a loner, a hood. He’s from a poor family, his parents are divorced, he smokes and drinks beer, and he’s a talented artist. Nick engages Jess outside of the sealed family, where she forms another life. When she’s with Nick, she shows a side of herself her family doesn’t see: rebellious, talkative, and flirtatious. Jess and Nick discuss death, dreams, disappointments. Without Nick, not only would major plot points vanish, but also Jess’s complexities and layers would recede. And in order for Nick to be believable, I had to spend time with him, I had to develop him the same way I did the central characters—figuring out his background, his personality and hobbies, his dreams and fears and joys.
Not all characters must change, and in fact, many of them won’t. But they still demand attention and need to be written with specificity and precision. Maybe readers will only catch a glimpse of their true depths because in this particular novel, these minor characters exist in order to reveal another facet of the protagonist, advance the narrative, or build tension—but we also sense they are complex, mysterious beings who could easily walk out of the pages of this book into a different one that tells their story, in which they are the stars.
I tell my students to make their characters talk to and mingle with one other—don’t let your characters exist in a vacuum. If you’re stuck, or need a different way of looking at your story, bring in a cranky neighbor, an old flame, a great-aunt, a salesman, a bad date. How does your protagonist engage with this person? What do they say, what do they think? What’s their body language? Often it’s the minor characters who reveal something unexpected and surprising about the central characters, and sometimes, these minor figures catch the light in way that makes you want to listen closer, to follow them home and learn more.
Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program.Thumbnail: Joel Filipe