When secondary characters don’t behave

Cheryl Zach

As the White Rabbit famously said, “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”

And I know it, I’m so sorry.  I’m moving, (you don’t want to know.  Think boxes, boxes and more boxes.)  The whole family has a stomach bug–you for sure don’t want to know details about that!  And when I’ve had the rare spare moment, I’ve added a few lines to the WorkInProgress, pounding out scenes and editing dialogue and making notes for future chapters.

The good news is–there actually IS a WIP.  Despite all best intentions, life sometimes takes over, even before the chaos of the move, and for a time, I couldn’t connect with the writing side of my brain.  Sometime, I will write about that–it’s too much for even a blog, though, I think.  But I can’t tell you what a relief it was for the ideas to begin to flow again…..whew!

And when I pushed everything else away and had to decide which book idea to work on, it was a Young Adult I had put aside some time ago when I got hung up over the problem of Bad Language, which I thought might set off all the censors and cause trouble with schools.  I had this drug dealer, you see, who was swearing every other word.

But this is the book, the story, the main character who is calling to me, so I pulled it out and took another look.  And I discovered that, although, yes, his swear words are still a problem–right now, I think the four letter words are just going to have to fall where they may–the much bigger problem is–he’s a total stereotype.  And I’ve taught students in my writing classes about avoiding this pot hole!  Teacher, listen to your own lesson!

Okay, I admit I don’t know that many drug dealers.  I don’t know any drug dealers–but that’s no excuse.  I do know how to create characters, even minor, foul-mouthed characters that nonetheless play an important, even vital role in the story.  They have to be individual, with their own storyline, their own background, needs, experiences.  Even though the readers will never glimpse most of this, the author will know, and it will make the character real, make him rise off the page.

So  I went back to square one and a much more satisfying character evolved. . . And now my story is humming along, and I can focus again on my main character–who is not, as you might be thinking–hooked on drugs.  It’s a lot more complicated than that.  This novel is about a girl from a rough part of town, yes, (not that drug dealers aren’t found in ritzy subdivisions, too!) but it’s mostly about identity–something I’ve played with before.  (RUNAWAY, Berkley, which won a RWA Rita award in the YA category.) I always tell my writing students that YA novels are by definition coming of age novels, but they also involve a teen figuring out who he/she is.  How much is environment/experience, how much of the real you are you born with, how much can you change–if you choose to, wish to?  Parents sometimes wonder this as they watch their children grow up, but what do teens think/feel when they hit a defining moment or a traumatic experience?

Oh, I can’t wait to jump back into this novel and share these exciting/poignant/heart-rending hours with my teen as Jude makes life or death choices.   So–see you later, fellow writers, and good writing!


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About Cheryl

Cheryl Zach has published over 50 books, mostly for young adult and middle grade, some for adult readers as Nicole Byrd. Her YA titles include the Southern Angel series: Hearts Divides ( which won the Virginia Romance Writers Holt Medallion), Winds of Change, A Dream of Freedom, and Last Rebellion. Her YA Runaway won the RWA Rita award, and she is a member of RWA's Hall of Fame. A military brat, she changed schools 10 times in 12 years, won a National Merit Scholarship, holds a B.A. and M.A. in English and taught school before stopping to write full time. Born in TN, she has lived in TN, TX, GA, on the MS Gulf Coast, in southern CA, in Britain and Germany and has visited most of the other states and several other countries. She has spoken at schools and workshops around the country.

3 thoughts on “When secondary characters don’t behave

  1. Cheryl, Congratulations on getting you secondary character in line. Some of us have had writers block in spades these last few months. It’s great to hear from a recovering author.

  2. When you spoke about the drug dealer, what popped into my mind was this mean tough character who swore a lot. But when he was a kid his grandmother made him make up his swear words. He could swear all he wanted but he had to make them up.And he;s still scared of her.

    • Great idea, Susan. Sadly, my character (drug dealer, whose name is Kleedo) has already become real to me,and that’s not his story, but that’s still an excellent idea for another tale — maybe one of yours. : )