Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Onions, Mushrooms and Hard Nuts

Onions, mushrooms and hard nuts...no, it's not a recipe for stew.  It's three different types of characters as defined by bestselling author Diana Gabaldon.  Onions are the characters that just keep revealing more and more layers as you get deeper into the story.  Main characters usually fall into the Onion category.  Hard Nuts are characters that must be in the story for the plot's sake, so they're tougher to crack open.  And Mushrooms are the little gems that pop up and make the entire story that much more delicious.

I find that good supporting characters fall into the Mushroom category.

Here's a little secret: the weirdo Wolfe family in my novel SHIFT is based on a real family.  Very very loosely based - "inspired" is even too strong a word.  But the idea for the family came to me after listening to a friend of mine tell me stories about the first boy she ever loved, and his bizarre home life.

So I knew that my romantic lead, Jonah, had a sister - because the real boy in my friend's stories had a sister.  Just for a little extra oomph, I made them twins.  I sat down to write the first scene in which they appear...and suddenly there was this sullen, angry girl, lighting up cigarettes and blowing smoke into my main character's face, totally judgmental, oddly possessive of her twin brother, and completely dominating the page.

A Mushroom.

This character - Bree - had sprung up out of the page as a strong, almost fully-formed character.  But I kept her to the sidelines for the most part, until the end of the book when she's involved in a climactic scene with my main character, Alessia.

Then my publisher got a hold of the book.  One of the first notes they gave me?  We want more Bree!

They'd recognized her potential.  They'd seen the opportunity that I had missed - to make Bree a great foil for Alessia.  In each subsequent draft, there was the same note - more Bree, more Bree!  They couldn't get enough of her.

To bulk up her character, I had to go back and really dig into what made Bree tick.  Why is she so angry and sullen?  Why does she have such a hard time making friends?  Why is she so protective of Jonah?  What is she hiding?

(I think it's important to ask all these questions about every character in your story.  Even the security guard that has a one-sentence mention.  That security guard is still a person, still flesh-and-blood...and the more three-dimensional all your characters are, the richer your story will be.)

So in answering all these questions, I turned Bree from a Mushroom into an Onion.  Each layer revealed something new, as well as another layer!  Finally, in the last draft, I nailed Bree's thru-line.  She's still mysterious...but I now know the answers to all the questions the reader will have about her.

And in writing that last draft, I realized that she is such an interesting character, she needs her own POV.  So in the second book of the trilogy, a good portion of the book will be written from her POV.  (I hope.  I haven't cleared it yet with my editor but I'm hoping she's on board!)

I think that's the best type of supporting character - the ones that pop up and demand our attention because they're so interesting.  These characters have their own story...and even though they're secondary to our main characters, their stories are just as fascinating.  They're also uniquely positioned to show the reader the other characters through a different set of eyes.  In my book, the romantic lead does not get his own POV.  In book one, we see Jonah only through Alessia's (somewhat rose-colored) eyes.  So in book two, we'll be able to see him through Bree's eyes, and let me assure you they are not rose-colored.

So basically, I took HarperTeen's note about wanting more Bree...and ran so far with it that my next editorial letter will probably start with: LESS BREE!

Haha...too late.

Nicole Maggi lives in Los Angeles, CA with her amazingly supportive husband and is a mom to almost-one-year-old Emilia.  She worked as an actress for many years in New York before the lure of sunshine and avocados enticed her to the West Coast.  Though she still acts, her focus now is on her writing.  In her very limited spare time, Nicole enjoys yoga, hiking, baking (and eating what she bakes), reading, reading, watching reruns of LOST, and more reading.  The first book in her Twin Willows Trilogy will be out in early 2013 from HarperTeen.


  1. Great post! I love when characters surprise you and demand more page space. It often has the unintended effect of changing the plot too, which can be thorny to deal with but usually brings something new and exciting to the table. Can't wait to meet Bree!

  2. This made me laugh! The mushroom metaphor is a fun one. I love when a character takes over. Sometimes I wonder if supporting characters get so much "sauce" because that kind of personality is hard to sustain page after page, but in small doses they can be these great little explosions of personality. I can't wait to see more of Bree!