One of those phrases, for me, is Window Character.
Next weekend my local RWA chapter is hosting an all-day workshop with Todd Stone of Novelist’s Boot Camp fame. Stone’s workshop is great not only because he’s an ex-Airborne officer who teaches in a kilt. But because of his merger of military tactics and discipline with the often wiggly and elusive craft of writing.
Window Character is one of his terms, his concepts.
It’s not something I didn’t know about. Secondary or tertiary character is probably an equally as apt description. If you go by archetypes, this would be the “Friend,” the confidant. The character who can function as the sounding board for the main character.
Stone’s twist on this is not only to make the character the sounding board but to make the character a window to the past.
This nicely addresses the problem of info dumps and backstory. I’ll get to why in a moment.
Stone writes: “A window characters…provides multiple opportunities to give the reader glimpses into your protagonist’s true nature.” The key thing is that your window character knew your main character BEFORE the story began. And knew him very well. (And yes, the antagonist can also have a window character.)
Stone says: The window character is a subordinate who
1) Shares the protagonist’s experiences
2) Has a relationship based on friendship not romance
3) Has conflicting personality points with the main character
4) Has the same agenda or understands the main character’s agenda
5) Must let the main character have the foreground
Yes, the window character is a secondary character and we all feel we know all there is to know about secondary characters. But what makes the window character special or slightly different are the points above. Most succinctly, the window character has been on the main character’s journey for a while. Or knew her “when…” This is an almost guaranteed solution to the icky problem of backstory.
Backstory are all those things that happened to the main character BEFORE the novel actually starts. Backstory likely shaped the main character into who he is at the story’s start and very often provides the motivation and explanation for his actions. But backstory is boring, it’s mostly unnecessary and if amateur writers have one consistent failing, it’s the flailing around in backstory in the book.
“Fiction is forward moving,” says writing guru Jack Bickham.
“People pay more money for prize fights than reminiscences,” advises writing guru Dwight Swain.
Those are two reasons why backstory is so deadly and why a window character is the perfect solution. The writer doesn’t need several paragraphs explaining the disastrous ending of the protagonist’s previous marriage, which is backstory. The writer needs a window character to see, hear and feel the experience as the main character and the window character interact with each other (with reader as voyeur):
(from The Down Home Zombie Blues by Linnea Sinclair, Bantam Dell 2007)
“How are your holidays so far, Theo?” Liza was still squatting next to
“Fine,” he lied. “Yours?”
“Kids are up to their eyes in toys they don’t need, as usual. And they can’t even get to the ones under the tree until Christmas.” She nudged him with her elbow and grinned. “My husband’s cousin Bonnie is in town. She’s a couple years younger than you, thirty-four or thirty-five, single. Real cute. Like you.” She winked. “You’re clocking out for vacation, right?”
He nodded reluctantly. He’d wondered why she asked about his schedule when he ran into her at the courthouse yesterday. Now he had a feeling he knew.
“Why don’t you come by the house tomorrow night, say hi to Mark and the kids, meet Bonnie?”
He rose. She stood with him. Liza Walters was, as his aunt Tootie liked to say, good people. But ever since he’d divorced Camille last year, Liza had joined the ranks of friends and coworkers trying to make sure Theo Petrakos didn’t spend his nights alone.
“Thanks. I mean that. But I’ve got some things to do.”
“How about next week, then?
I’m sure you’ll like her. You could come with us to the New Year’s concert and fireworks at Pass Pointe Beach.” She raised her chin toward Zeke. “You too, Zeke. Unless Suzanne has other plans?”
“New Year’s Eve is always at her sister’s house.” Zeke splayed his hands outward in a gesture of helplessness. “Suzy doesn’t give me a choice.”
Liza briefly laid her hand on Theo’s arm. “Think about it. You need to have some fun. Forget about the bitch.”
He smiled grimly. Forgetting about the bitch wasn’t the problem. Trusting another woman was. “I’ll let you know, but I’m probably scheduled on call out.”
“That Bonnie sounds real nice,” Zeke intoned innocently as Liza went back to photographing a splintered bookcase. “Thirty-five’s not too young for you. I mean, you’re not even fifty.”
Theo shot a narrow-eyed glance at the shorter man. “Forty-three. And don’t you start on me too.”
Zeke grinned affably. “So what are your plans for tomorrow night, old man?”
“I’m restringing my guitar.”
Theo only glared at him.
Zeke shook his head. “Still singing The Down Home Divorced Guy Blues? Man, you gotta change your tune.”
“I like my life just the way it is.”
“When’s the last time you got laid?”
“If you focus that fine investigative mind of yours on our dead friend’s problems, not mine, we just might get out of here by midnight.”
“That long ago, eh?”
“I’m going to go see what I can find in the bedroom,” he said, ignoring Zeke’s leering grin at his choice of destination. “You take the kitchen.”
Zeke’s good-natured snort of laughter sounded behind him as he left.
Both Liza and Zeke function as window characters in my CSI:Miami meets Men In Black science fiction romance novel. Theo—the main character—is a homicide detective. Zeke is his long-time partner. Liza is a forensics technician. Rather than penning…
Theo Petrakos is a forty-three year old detective who went through a divorce that has left him emotionally scarred and leery of relationships…
I let you in to Theo’s life and let his friends—my window characters—show you what’s going on with him. Did I know I was creating a window character when I created Zeke? (Who, more than Liza, continues to function that way throughout the book.) Nope. I’m a pantser, pretty much an instinctual, organic writer. The character just felt right.
Now I know why.
The other important function of the window character is to act as a sounding board for the main character’s ideas…and to throw monkey wrenches into them. This is a wonderful source of conflict because it’s not from the expected source: the antagonist. It’s from the main character’s friend. Who not only makes the main character rethink his plans but makes him doubt himself as well.
In the above snippet from The Down Home Zombie Blues, Theo’s partner and best friend is punching holes in everything Theo wants to do, in the very things Theo believes are the only answers to the problem. It even escalates to the point where the two friends threaten to come to blows.
“And what do you think,” Theo asked quietly as his friend voiced the one downside he’d overlooked and now feared, “the news media will do to Jorie?”
Zeke’s mouth opened, then closed quickly.
“A freak show, Ezequiel. It’d be a fucking freak show.” Everyone would want a piece of Guardian Commander Jorie Mikkalah. The National Enquirer. The Jerry Springer show. And worse. Bile rose in Theo’s throat. How could he have been so stupid as not to realize what would happen? All this time he’d seen the Guardians’ reluctance to reveal their presence as a selfish act. And he’d ignored what Jorie told them the Guardians learned from experience: nil-tech worlds routinely acted illogically—sometimes even violently—when faced with someone from another galaxy.
“I’m not putting her through that.”
“The Feds will never let that happen. They’ll put her under lock and key.”
Another scenario he’d come up with and feared. “I’m not letting that happen, either.”
“Theophilus. I don’t think you have a choice.”
“Like hell I don’t.” Theo spun away from him and resumed pacing.
“What are you going to do, risk hundreds of people’s lives because you don’t want a bunch of scientists in some basement room of the Pentagon asking Jorie questions? I think she can handle that. She’s probably been trained to handle that.”
Theo could see the tight, pained expression on Jorie’s face as she told him about her captivity with the Tresh. He could feel her shivering against him. He could see her fingers trace the rough scar on her shoulder.
He could see her getting into a dark government sedan with darkened windows, knowing he’d never see her again.
His breath shuddered out. This was the only scenario he’d agree to. And that, too, had flaws. “I’ll give them the zombie, the weapons.” They had both Guardian and Tresh now. “I’m not giving them Jorie.”
“You can’t hide her in your spare room the rest of her life. She has no Social Security number, no ID. She can’t even get a job.” Zeke raised his arms in an exasperated motion. “Talk about illegal alien!”
“I’ll get her an ID. A whole identity.”
Zeke stared at him. “Be serious.”
“You know what that costs, a good fake identity?”
“I can take equity out of my house to pay for it.”
Zeke barked out a harsh laugh. “Brilliant, Einstein. Traceable funds. There goes your career.”
“I’m not going to write a fucking personal check.” Theo glared at him. “I’m not that stupid.”
“Then listen to yourself, damn it! You’re talking felony jail time. Your life down the shitter. You do know what they do to cops in the Graybar Hotel, don’t you?”
“You’re assuming I’d get caught.”
“No, she’d get caught, suddenly surfacing in all the databases.” Zeke ticked the items off on his fingers. “She’d have to get a job, buy a car, rent an apartment—”
“Not if she’s living with me, she won’t.”
“Living with—what’re you going to do, Theophilus? Marry her?”
Theo raised his chin and met Zeke’s question with a hard stare. This was one of the decisions he’d made driving through the bright Florida sunshine in the middle of Christmas Day with Jorie by his side. And a dead zombie behind them. “Yes.”
“You’re—Ay, Jesucristo.” Zeke dropped his head in his hands, then lifted his face slightly and peered up at Theo. “You got a thing for women with fake identities?”
The not-so-veiled reference to his disastrous marriage hit him like a sucker punch. Theo looked away, keeping his temper in check. But he couldn’t keep the anger out of his voice when he turned back. “I’m sorely tempted to kick the shit out of you for saying that.”
Zeke straightened slowly, eyes wide then narrowing. “You want to take it outside, Theo? We can take it outside.”
This isn’t the usual conflict from the opposition. It’s the more deadly conflict from within. It strips the safety net away from the main character. It leaves him totally alone—which is exactly where he needs to be in the last quarter of a fiction novel.
The window character—who knows the main character better than anyone—is the perfect person for the job of conflict. Their shared history—their backstory—becomes a workable ingredient in increasing the conflict rather than info slathered on, stopping the flow of action.
So here I am, seven books in with Bantam, and I’ve learned something. Yes, it was something I was already doing—I wrote Zombie long before I read Stone’s book. But now I know why I did it, I know why it works, I know what it can do and because I know all that, I can do it better in future books.
Writing is often an innate process but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to understand the craft of creation. Actually, because it’s so innate and often elusive, it’s vitally important we understand the craft of creation: why did that work? And more importantly, how can I do it again?
That is, if you want to sell your next book.
Thanks, General Stone. ::Linnea salutes::
RITA award winning Science Fiction Romance
Bantam 2007-2008: Games of Command, The Down Home Zombie Blues, Shades of Dark
2009: Hope's Folly