34 – The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough – Creating Emotion

The Language of Dying is an elegiac, emotionally moving novella, about a woman whose father is dying. In today’s episode, I dive deep into analysing how the author crafted such a profound emotional experience. If you want your words to move your readers, this episode explains how. 

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My debut fantasy novella, Fires of the Dead, is available on amazon for pre-order! Get it here:  http://bit.ly/firesjedherne

Or use this link to read a free prequel story:https://jedherne.com/dead/

33 – A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. – Exploring Theme through Structure

My debut fantasy novella, Fires of the Dead, is available on amazon for pre-order! Get it here: https://amzn.to/31KMCUR

Or use this link to read a free sample chapter: https://jedherne.com/dead/

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a 1959 post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel by Walter M. Miller Jr. It’s often described as one of the first post-apocalyptic stories. Without it, there would be no Book of Eli, The Stand, or most other post-apocalyptic tales.

Don’t just take my word for it. It won the 1961 Hugo Award – one of science fiction’s highest honours. Legendary scientist Carl Sagan described it as: “so tautly constructed, so rich in the accommodating details of an unfamiliar society that [it] sweep me along before I have even a chance to be critical”.

It’s a remarkable novel. I don’t have the space in one episode to fully analyse it, so today I’m focusing on just one thing: how it uses an unconventional structure to explore the theme and emotionally gut-punch readers. Enjoy!

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Show Notes:

Fires of the Dead, by Jed Herne – https://jedherne.com/dead/

Watch my YouTube channel for writing advice every weekday:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVjB-qFoNxNbQq0S3boWxIA?view_as=subscriber  

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Twitter: @jedherne

Email: jed.herne1@gmail.com

28 – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling – Meaningful Supporting Characters. 

Today’s episode is all about secondary characters. What constitutes a great secondary character? How can us writers create amazing side characters that improve the quality of our stories?

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Transcript:

If your story’s all about the hero, what’s the point of everyone else?

I think we can all agree that the secondary characters in Harry Potter are amazing. From Hermione’s nerdery to Fred and George’s prankery, from Neville Longbottom’s clumsiness to Hagrid’s alarming yet endearing negligence, each secondary character makes the series a joy.

So in this episode I want to examine Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. This book follows Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, during which ominous messages appear warning that the “Chamber of Secrets” has been opened and that the “heir of Slytherin” is planning to kill students who don’t belong to pure-blood, all-magical families. It’s up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione to unravel the mystery and close the Chamber before someone dies.

Today’s episode is all about secondary characters. What constitutes a great secondary character? How can us writers create amazing side characters that improve the quality of our stories?

Let’s start by defining a secondary character. I’m sure literary folk have lots of ways to do this, but for me a secondary character is anyone who is not a:

Point of View character – or characters

Or the main antagonist – or antagonists

And by that vague definition, secondary characters comprise the bulk of a novel. Especially the Harry Potter series, which has 772 total characters.

(As a fun aside, the series has 1,084,170 words. If you divide that by the total number of characters, each character ‘gets’ – I’m using inverted commas because that’s not really how it works – an average of 1 404 words. Kinda puts into perspective how compact and efficient Rowling was with her writing.)

So what makes a good secondary character?

One school of thought says that it’s all about conflict. Good secondary characters provide conflict by having different goals to the main character.

What I mean is this: when we think of conflict, we often think of the good guy or gal vs the bad guy or gal. Hero verses villain. And while that can be effective, it can get old really quickly and feel … simplistic.

Secondary characters provide relief from that, because you can have a secondary character who’s friends with your main character, but still does things that create conflict with your main character.

That’s why I hate the idea of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains.’ For me, it’s better to think of characters as Protagonists (the quote unquote heroes) and Antagonists (the quote unquote villains). At some points, the protagonists’ allies might become Antagonists who oppose her goal. Having this mindset creates more room for grey spots. Good people who do bad things, and bad people who do good things. To me, that’s a more interesting place to explore compared to good people who always do good and bad people who always do bad.

For example, in the Chamber of Secrets there’s the scene where Hagrid wants to let Harry and Ron get clues about the chamber of secrets. He encourages them to go into the forbidden forest, where they end up in the nest of bunch of giant spiders who try to eat them. From his perspective, Hagrid is trying to help Harry and Ron. But from Harry and Ron’s point of view Hagrid is providing a lot of conflict and opposition for them and they’re lucky to make it out of the woods with their lives.

Another example is at the start of the novel. Dobby the house elf wants to stop harry from going to Hogwarts, because Dobby wants to protect Harry. Unfortunately, Dobby’s idea of protecting Harry is to almost get him expelled from Hogwarts, by using magic to smash his Aunt’s dessert on the kitchen floor and framing it on Harry, who isn’t allowed to use magic outside of school. Dobby wants to help Harry … but again, it makes Harry worse off.

Okay. So conflict is a large part of effective secondary characters. Your story would be boring if all the secondary characters thought the light shone out of your hero’s butt and they never did anything to annoy him or her.

But I can’t help feeling that’s not it. Secondary characters don’t just exist for creating conflict.

We’re missing something.

How about humour? I think that’s another great function of secondary characters. Harry himself is not an amazingly funny guy. Sure, he has his moments, but that’s not really his function. His function is more to be an audience surrogate – a lens for readers to experience the story through, and to imagine that the story is happening to them. He’s still a complex character with rock-solid motivations and meaningful character arcs in each book, and he does crack good one-liners, but he’s not really there for the jokes.

Some of the other characters, on the other hand … they’re tailor-made for comedy.

The one that springs to mind is Gilderoy Lockhart. There’s so many great moments where this try-hard celebrity reveals his utter inadequacy at actual magic. Whether it’s pixies wreaking havoc to his classroom, or him removing all the bones in Harry’s broken arm instead of actually fixing those bones, he’s a shining example of how secondary characters often provide much-needed comic relief. Especially in a story that’s a dark as this – for a children’s book, no less – secondary characters have a vital role of providing levity and humour and fun moments to balance the darkness.

But again, that’s not enough.

That’s not the sole function of secondary characters.

Something else, then: do secondary characters exist to provide misdirection to create suspense? Certainly, in Harry Potter. For a lot of the novel, we suspect Draco Malfoy is the heir of Slytherin – the person responsible for unleashing the creature inside the Chamber of Secrets which is petrifying students around Hogwarts. This misdirection leads Harry and Ron to disguise themselves as Slytherin students to sneak into the Slytherin common room, to find out if Malfoy is the Heir. However, they’re proven wrong. Malfoy isn’t the culprit. The main character – and us readers – have been fooled.

Misdirection is crucial to building suspense.

If characters succeed on their first try, everything feels too easy. Misdirection allows you to have multiple try-fail cycles, which makes the protagonists’ eventual victory sweeter because it’s following a lot of failures.

So do secondary characters exist just to provide misdirection? Again, it is a big part of their role. But we can’t ignore how we’ve established that secondary characters also produce humour, and conflict.

But conflict and misdirection are kind of related, right? So is that the point of secondary characters? To simply make the plot happen?

Well, again that’s a key aspect of their use in Harry Potter. But, again, that’s not all they do. Secondary characters are characters – and characters don’t just exist to drive the plot forward. They also exist to flesh out the world, and just be there and be interesting and compelling in their own right.

Okay. So if we had to choose between:

  • Creating conflict
  • Providing comic relief
  • Creating misdirection
  • Facilitating plot
  • Or just fleshing out the world

Which one would we choose? Which one of those is the main purpose of secondary characters?

Spoilers: it’s a trick question.

Because it’s none of those things. At least, none of those things by themselves.

The answer: it’s about theme.

In The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, John Truby writes: “a great story is not simply a sequence of events or surprises designed to entertain an audience. It is a sequence of actions, with moral implications and effects, designed to express a larger theme.”

Theme is the brain that guides a story. Once you’ve figured it out – and you might not discover it until after the first or second or third draft of your novel – I personally find it useful to write it down.

Then it becomes a filter.

Every element of the story is evaluated with regards to the theme: does this thing match the theme, does this character behave in a way that explores the theme, etc.

The theme of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – to me, at least – is this:

you are who you choose to be, not who other people want you to be.

I’ll say that again: you are who you choose to be, not who other people want you to be.

And this is where secondary characters reveal their true power.

In A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin, one of the characters has a fantastic quote: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

That’s quite relevant to the function of secondary characters. Secondary characters can explore different aspects of your theme that your protagonist can’t explore.

Robert McKee explains this in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. He says: “Each role must fit a purpose, and the first principle of cast design is polarization. Between the various roles we devise a network of contrasting or contradictory attitudes.”

In other words, each secondary character showcases an alternative way to respond to the story’s thematic truth that you are who you choose to be, not who other people want you to be. Whether they fully embrace or fully reject this truth – or any reaction in between – their struggles with the theme guide Harry in his character arc of realising this truth.

For example:

  • Gilderoy Lockhart chooses to become an apparently successful celebrity, even though he doesn’t have the experience to back it up and just steals other peoples’ stories. This is an example of someone who’s mastered a small part of the story’s thematic truth, by realising he controls his external identity. He controls the gilding he paints over his façade. (Gilding being a thin coating, usually of gold, that you paint over something to make it appear as solid gold. Almost like that’s the point of his name … J K Rowling you sly dog.) However, he doesn’t have the full picture because his internal identity doesn’t back it up. He doesn’t walk the talk.
  • Dobby is a House Elf: a race that has been slaves to wizards for centuries. Slavery is ingrained into Dobby’s DNA. Heck, if he disobeys his masters, he beats himself up as punishment! Pretty much the whole world wants Dobby to be a slave. However, throughout the book he inches closer to the thematic truth: to achieving self-determination and defining his own identity. And this struggle, this character arc, culminates at the end of the book, where, with Harry’s help, he proudly proclaims that “Dobby is a free elf.”
  • And lastly, Tom Riddle, who for most of the novel appears as a memory in a 50 year-old diary before being revealed to be Lord Voldemort’s soul in the climax. As you can imagine, his reaction to the theme is quite dramatic. In the climax, there’s a scene where he takes his name – Tom Marvolo Riddle – and rearranges them to say: I am Lord Voldemort. Tom Riddle has cast aside the identity he was given at birth and created himself anew.

In this regard, he’s a dark shadow, an evil inversion of Harry Potter. Harry, of course, also creates his own identity by realising even though he has many attributes of a Slytherin, he can decide to be a true Gryffindor.

It’s no accident that he makes this decision at a crucial moment in the climax, while trapped alone with Riddle in the Chamber of Secrets, well underneath the school, away from anyone. Down here, in this Innermost Cave, this moment of transcendence, he symbolically dies and achieves rebirth through deciding that he is a Gryffindor.

He realises the thematic truth that you are who you choose to be, not who other people want you to be. And this rebirth through the realisation of the theme is symbolised in the appearance of Fawkes the Phoenix: a creature that, after death, rises from the ashes. And in case we needed another reminder of the story’s theme, Dumbledore reinforces it in the conclusion, when he says:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

 

***

 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets isn’t my favourite book in the series. That honour goes to the Goblet of Fire, or Deathly Hallows, depending on the day. That’s not to say that the Chamber of Secrets is a weak novel. It’s a fantastic, cohesive, concise story, with a ton of great moments I got to revisit as I was making this episode. And even though Harry Potter’s name is on the cover, it’s ultimately not him that makes this a novel worth re-reading.

It’s Dobby, it’s Lockhart, it’s Fred and George – and it’s all the secondary characters that knit together to form a wonderful tapestry of story.


Show notes:

3 – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling – Creating Suspense Using Question Arcs

11 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling – Narrative Misdirection

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10 – Mistborn The Final Empire – by Brandon Sanderson – Mastering the Grand Skill of Worldbuilding

Sanderson is a master of creating compelling fantasy worlds. Mistborn is a perfect example – and it’s one of the best novel’s I’ve read this year. In this episode, I’ll analyse different techniques Sanderson uses to craft an amazing world.

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Shownotes:

Brandon Sanderson’s (Amazing!) writing lectures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4ZDBOc2tX8&list=PLH3mK1NZn9QqOSj3ObrP3xL8tEJQ12-vL

Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic: https://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/

***

Twitter: @JedHerne

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7 – The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie – Exploring Theme

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and what made it strong was Abercrombie’s masterful control of theme. In this episode, I examine how The Heroes doesn’t cram a moral down readers throats, but instead uses characters, structure, and symbolism to explore how in a war it’s impossible to be a hero in every way and at every time …

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***

Twitter: @JedHerne

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Shownotes:

Joe’s article on theme in The Heroes

Story by Robert McKee

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

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