Monthly Archives: September 2017

On Writing: Supporting Characters with Phaedra Patrick

While some books can hold their own with a solid, unshakeable protagonist (ahem, Jack Reacher), most books need to have an array of interesting, fully-realised supporting characters. Where would Bridget Jones be without her chain-smoking, straight-talking friends and family? Or where would Frodo be without the Fellowship? Probably wouldn’t have made it past his front garden, if we’re being honest.

Phaedra Patrick is an author who knows the value of an eclectic group of supporting characters. Her outstanding debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, wowed critics with its ‘oodles of charm’. Now she’s back with her highly anticipated follow-up, Wishes Under the Willow Tree, which once again is brimming with a number of unforgettable characters. We want to know how she does it.

Wishes Under the Willow Tree cover

Both of your novels have a fantastic array of supporting characters, how do you create supporting characters who are three-dimensional and with distinctive personalities?

Main characters have space and time throughout a novel to grow and develop, whereas supporting ones enjoy a more fleeting appearance. So it’s important that they are memorable for readers.

I always try to think of a couple of distinguishing attributes for each minor character, a little like a caricaturist might select strong features to exaggerate in a drawing. Or it might be something about the way they walk, or talk. I try to make them a little out of the ordinary – a llama keeper who ties up his long hair with a child’s pink bobble, a lonely lady who cares for others by baking cakes and who wears rhinestones on her fingernails, a lord of the manor who dresses only in cobalt blue and who hand-raises tigers.

It also helps to give minor characters a passion, obsession or duty. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something that allows them to have a journey or goal of their own. They may love trying out different flavours of crisps, or be hunting for a place to live. They might have a secret unrequited love, or be trying to save a floundering relationship. It’s great if it’s something readers can relate to or recognise.

 

What should good supporting characters contribute to the story?

We all have other people in our everyday lives, even though not all of them are helpful! Some have large parts to play, and others have smaller ones. Main characters need people around them too, whether that’s friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues, strangers…or even enemies and rivals.

Supporting characters are there to encourage and help the hero or heroine on their journey. Or to throw hurdles in their way.  They can add variety to the story, offer solutions, or a bit of humorous relief. They should help the main character to shine, rather than try to hog the limelight themselves.

 

Are the supporting characters initially vehicles for the plot or do they come to you first and you figure out a way to fit them in?

In both my novels the supporting characters often showed up unannounced, as I wrote. It’s a little like a casting call for extras and you never know who is going to turn up on the day.

 

Has a supporting character ever found its way into a more prominent role, if so who/why?

In The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Arthur’s interfering neighbour, Bernadette, initially had a smaller role. She was there to bother and provoke Arthur. However, the more she turned up on his doorstep with her home-made pies, the more it became apparent that they both needed each other, in order to move on with their lives.

 

Which book/film/play has outstanding supporting characters? What do they have that makes them special and what can writers learn from it?

One of my favourite introductions comes from Tony Stark, the main character in the film Iron Man, when he introduces himself as, ‘Genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist.’ These four words give us such a clear picture of his character. I actually think it’s brilliant film too, one of my top three. All the characters are distinctive, their interaction is exciting, the main character has an interesting journey full of highs and lows, plus there’s a great bad guy.

Describing your friends and family in four words can be a great writing exercise to try out. Or, why not ask them to describe you? It’s a useful trick to apply to the cast of your book, to give you a strong framework for their characters.

Once you have four words to describe your main character, you can think of contrasting or complimentary ones for your supporting ones, so you have a real mix. If you have a workaholic protagonist, try giving her a lazy assistant and see what happens. Or if you have an unlucky-in-love bachelor, give him a flat mate who’s an expert on Tinder. The combinations are endless.

 

How do you know when to cut a minor character out? Have you ever had a ‘kill your darlings’ moment?

I’m guilty of committing a few murders when necessary. If a minor character doesn’t contribute to your main character’s journey or quest, then they should leave or change. You can often ‘feel’ when they aren’t quite working. My second book, Wishes Under the Willow Tree (known as Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone in the US), featured a Yorkshire hairdresser who just wasn’t doing her job. It’s only when I turned her into an Italian florist instead, that she came to life.

Wishes Under the Willow Tree is out now on e-book: get it here. Paperback will be published April 2018. Follow Phaedra on Twitter: @phaedrapatrick 

Debut author interview: Phoebe Morgan

She didn’t realise it at the time, but Phoebe Morgan’s journey to becoming a published author started when she was only 6, when her dad made her an impressive doll house. This became the inspiration for her chilling debut, The Doll House, which has already been met with rave reviews by early readers.

In the first instalment of our series of interviews with debut authors, Phoebe Morgan, author of The Doll House, talks about setbacks, support networks, and why an idyllic family home is the perfect setting for a psychological thriller…

 

The Doll House is out today, but first let’s look back to where it all started. Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?

When I was about six or seven, my Dad made me a doll house and I was obsessed with it! It was beautiful, with six rooms, a fully functioning staircase and even a loft. I used to spend ages creating the perfect little family set-up, and so when it came to thinking of ideas for my first book, the doll house sprang to mind. A doll house is like a perfect little microcosm of the ideal home, one in which you’re in charge. As a child, I could create the perfect narrative by playing with my dolls – I had a Mummy doll in the kitchen (horribly sexist) and a Daddy who returned home from work with a briefcase (fairly sure my own father doesn’t have one!)  while the small dolls played by the fire (all a tad unrealistic).

As a writer, I wanted to explore that idea of the idyllic family home not being quite as lovely as it might first seem. I knew I wanted to write a book about the complicated relationship that can exist between sisters too, and the memory gaps that can exist between childhood and adulthood. It fascinates me how we all remember certain scenes differently, and as we become adults we sometimes learn things about our families and our parents that do not quite match up with the idealistic childhood memories we’ve remembered. In the book, this concept of a perfect home begins to slowly disintegrate until the characters’ memories are distorted by the truths that have been uncovered. There have been a lot of lies and the sisters in my book have to deal with the repercussions of that!

As plenty of budding authors know, getting published is rarely a straightforward process. What for you was the most difficult aspect of your journey as a debut author?

Oh, it’s always so hard getting rejections! With The Doll House, we had a couple of near misses, and some straight no’s too, and every time you get an email explaining why it’s not quite right for a list it definitely stings. It can be difficult picking yourself back up and continuing to have hope when things aren’t going your way but honestly, I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t been rejected at some point in their career. When you’re a debut, you’re a total unknown so you do need an editor to take a chance on you and your idea, which can be terrifying. I think near-misses have probably actually been the hardest bit, because that’s when you really get your hopes up and start allowing yourself to imagine getting a deal, and so when that comes to nothing, it can feel pretty tough. But you absolutely never know what is around the corner and you have to be persistent, and remember that you only need one yes, and then it really doesn’t matter any more how many no’s you got along the way!

I also remember having a particularly sticky plot point while writing this book which always stays in my mind. I was working on it in the British Library, which is such a lovely place to write (despite the vastly overpriced snacks!) and I just could not figure out this one thing. I called my mum in tears, and then suddenly had an idea for the solution and ended the call very quickly… I did ring back to apologise though.

We’ve obviously loved working with you, but what’s it been like for you to work with an agent and an editor for the first time?

I’m so lucky to have worked with Camilla Wray here at Darley Anderson and with Charlotte Mursell at HQ, both of whom brought new ideas to the book and helped me make it what it is today. When you write, you get so close to your manuscript that you do start to lose sight of it a little, and having those extra pairs of eyes reading everything over makes all the difference. Camilla is a very hands-on editorial agent so we worked a lot on the book before it went on submission, straightening out plot problems, revising sections of the narrative and even cutting out a whole strand at one point! At the time, rewriting can feel brutal and difficult, but the novel is so much better for it. You have to constantly be aware of the reader, how they’ll feel at each juncture, and how the book will sit in the market. I worked very hard on getting my opening just right along with my chapter endings, with the aim of keeping the reader on their toes and giving them that incentive to keep turning the pages. Agents and editors know the market inside out and having that crucial insight is invaluable.

Finally – it’s publication day! How have you been feeling in the run up to the big day?

The run up to publication has been a strange time! I work in publishing too as a Commissioning Editor at Avon, so I do have an insight into how some of this works and what to expect, which is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse! I think it means I can’t kid myself, and am realistic in my expectations, but at the same time it makes it easier to torture myself with nerves when I look at the amount of amazing books that I will be competing against! Mostly, I’ve been really overwhelmed with how kind people have been – telling me they’ve pre-ordered the book, leaving positive reviews on GoodReads, getting in touch on social media – but then the closer we get to publication, the harder I’m finding it to sleep too as it does feel as though it’s becoming very real now, when for so long it was a bit of a pipe dream. It’s also been quite a whirlwind fitting in writing publicity bits and pieces in the run up, and making sure I’m on top of extra stuff such as social media.

Having a book go out into the world is without doubt a very nerve-wracking process, but I’ve found that talking to other writers really helps as they know what you’re going through and can offer words of wisdom in that respect. I think it’s also important to remember – and this is something I’m trying to do – that your book is one part of your life, an important one, but that it’s not your whole life, and so things always need to be kept in perspective. If I keep thinking that way, I’m hoping any negative reviews and set-backs won’t feel quite as bad…!