Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Ideas Jar

On the first Friday of each month, Novelista Annie Burrows will be drawing a question out of the jar where we've been putting all the questions about the writing process posed by readers -

This month, the question that came out of the jar was:

How do you decide on how many secondary characters should appear in a book?
1) Planned out list?
2) As and when required?

That's a very good question Cheryl! (waves)

As you know, I write for Harlequin Mills & Boon, so the focus is very much on the two main characters, and their love story.

However, they do need a world in which to act out their story, and I do have to populate it with secondary characters.

When I first start thinking about any story, the first thing I do is imagine the backstory of my hero and heroine.  I have to know what kind of childhood they had, which means placing them in a family.  And at this stage I often do write out a list of "the sisters and the cousins and the aunts" (to paraphrase W. S. Gilbert.)  I may also give them a pet such as a dog, and since my books are set in Regency England, a horse (with its own personality.)

There may also be a villain, with henchmen, who will also go on the list.

But then I start writing.  And my characters, at this point, become much more rounded.  And the world in which I have them moving becomes far more detailed as well.  As the story develops, I do find I need "extras", as well as the initial cast I drew up.  A butler, to answer the door, a footman to carry a note, a maidservant to help my heroine dress and undress, and various lords and ladies to populate the ballrooms.

But then, sometimes, characters also just walk into the story without my say so because they decide they have a part to play.

For instance, when I was working on the Silk and Scandal series, I sent my heroine to the house of her estranged half brother, and when she knocked on the door, it was opened by an Indian manservant I never knew existed before.

Since another author was responsible for the part of the series that dealt with this half brother, I immediately e-mailed her, to tell her what had happened.  I think the email went something like - "Midge has just knocked on Stephano's door, and it has been opened by an Indian manservant.  Have you any idea where he came from?"

As this email went to another author, she was not at all phased by this, and immediately emailed back with a whole story of how Stephano had rescued this man whilst seeking out jewels in India, and how he was now a devoted servant who would protect his master with his life.

It was as if neither of us invented him.  He was just there, hovering in the wings, waiting to walk on and play his part.

So, in short, the answer to the two-part question is Yes!  Both!  I start off planning the characters I think I'm going to need, add others when I need them, and also get surprised by characters I didn't know were lurking in the background, who simply want to get in on the act.

So - do you have any questions about the writing process you would like to ask?

If so, please leave your question in the comments box.  All questions will go into the jar, and I will draw one out each month. 

Annie's latest release is "In Bed with the Duke" which you can buy from Harlequin in the US or Mills & Boon in the UK


  1. I know exactly what you mean about characters suddenly appearing out of nowhere. I was halfway through a manuscript when my heroine's brother suddenly appeared and proceeded to play a major role in the denouement. He never appeared in the synopsis I'd written on which this book was sold to my publisher. But he was crucial to the story I wrote!

  2. LOL - I have had characters like that - pushy. He will be demanding his own story before you know it Amelia!


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