Writing Breakout Characters
(NOTE: If you haven’t read the Harry Potter books yet, SPOILERS AHEAD.)
A year or two ago I was following along with one of Summer Heacock’s fabulous live-tweets of the Harry Potter movies on Twitter. We were on Deathly Hallows 2, at that part in the heart of the forest where Harry and Voldemort face off. I don’t remember who said it first, Summer or Colten Hibbs, but someone pointed out that Narcissa takes a big risk when she lies to Voldemort about Harry being dead.
And my world exploded. The ENTIRE series shattered and spun around into a new shape in my head, as Narcissa Malfoy stepped forward and dropped one of the fiercest moments I can remember from any book ever.
Because Voldemort is supposedly impossible to lie to, right? He’s the world’s finest Legilimens. Except Snape, of course, and his talent as an Occlumens and hidden badassery as he lies to the Dark Lord over and over and gets away with it is one of the reasons we love him. It makes him exceptional.
Only HOLD ON, HOLY CRAP WAIT: here comes this scene in the forest. Harry and Voldemort have just returned from the dead, and literally every Death Eater in the world is watching as Narcissa Malfoy — a side character usually employed to boost our dislike of her son and husband so our heroes can look cool by comparison — is sent to check on Harry. Narcissa sees he’s alive, makes an instant decision to save her son Draco, turns around, looks Voldemort full in the face, and drops a nuclear bomb of a falsehood.
AND HE BELIEVES HER.
This is the single most important question Voldemort has ever asked. Everything depends on the answer. This is like that moment in The Crucible when Elizabeth Proctor lies for the first time in her life hoping to protect her husband, and that one word costs everyone their lives.
Narcissa Malfoy knows she holds Voldemort’s future in her hands, and she decides to do exactly what Lily Potter did and put herself right in his way for the sake of her son. Love was always going to be Voldemort’s undoing, but that it came down to this moment, and NARCISSA EFFING MALFOY’S LOVE FOR DRACO, that’s flat out glorious. Because she just does it. She steps out of every corner the books had backed her into, into the full light of Voldemort’s most piercing, desperate, unrelenting, need-to-know glare, and says, “He is dead. Oh by the way, I never mentioned I’m THE WORLD’S GREATEST OCCLUMENS. BOOM.”
Stellar Secondary Characters
That’s a breakout character right there. Main characters have objectives and obstacles, and we spend most of our reading time urging them on, but there’s just something so deeply satisfying about an overlooked or secondary character who becomes so realized, so much themselves, that they gain agency — even just temporarily — over the story itself.
The character Tehanu does that in the book of the same name by Ursula K. Le Guin. In a talk I saw her give eight or so years ago, Le Guin told us about “this burned child who walked into my mind and wouldn’t be turned away,” and how that child stepped into the lives of the characters who were already three books in and changed the course of the entire world of Earthsea.
In The Other Wind, Tehanu unfolds even more, stepping into her power and literally calling an angry dragon out of the sky to answer her questions. (Another permanent chills scene. When she holds up her hand and the dragon bows to it, “like a falcon stooping to the wrist…”) The king and other main characters ask her to try talking to the restless dragons out of sheer desperation, and she not only surpasses their expectations, she shocks the crap out of the watching wizards who, until that moment, thought they were the most powerful human beings on earth. Her smile when she dismisses the dragon and turns back to the people watching is everything.
There are tons of other kinds of breakout characters, too, of course. Thannà Lại’s Listen, Slowly — one of the best books ever, go read it right now, seriously — is packed to the brim with secondary characters whose own worlds are so strong the main character, Mai, becomes a visitor in their world while she’s with them. Mai is already feeling out of place in her family village in Vietnam — so different from her home in California — but when she crosses paths with her aunt Cô Hạhn her own plans and schemes for getting back home go out the window, at least for a while. When Cô Hạhn is around she’s in charge and that’s that. No argument, no discussion. Not even if you’re the main character.
Sexy Gary, the park ranger-sasquatch in Lish McBride’s creepy and hilarious Necromancing the Stone, (sequel to Hold Me Closer, Necromancer), is a perfect example of a breakout character who steps in to change the tone of a book midway through. Things are looking pretty dire for Sam LaCroix, our newby necromancer MC. Allies are dying, terrible responsibilities are encroaching, and worst of all, his dead necromancer nemesis might be trying to necromance himself back to life. Enter Sexy Gary, wandering in out of the forests of the Pacific Northwest to distract, complicate, and sexify the crap out of all the grim things that happen next. And help a little. Maybe. When he’s done making everyone swoon.
Then there’s my beloved Colonel Fitzwilliam from Pride and Prejudice. Oh, Colonel Fitzwilliam*sigh*. He turns up just in time at Rosings, giving Elizabeth both a breath of fresh air and a chance to show off her wit and conversational powers, a chance she hadn’t had thanks to Lady Catherine’s monologues. He also seems wonderful in and of himself. He’s almost a match for Elizabeth, and there’s more than a passing suggestion that, if she wanted to, she could have married him. Colonel Fitzwilliam is the road not taken character, the door that didn’t get chosen. His life goes on from that meeting, and maybe he and Elizabeth become friends later and they all meet at Pemberley, or maybe they never see each other again in their lives. But for those few brief days he becomes a possibility, a real rival to our dashing main characters simply by showing up, being himself, and leaving an absence behind.
Some other characters who break out, some dramatically, some so quietly you only notice them after they’ve already reshaped the course of the story, include:
- The Countess in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series.
- Mrs. Penhallow in Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch.
- Freckles the Bartender in Tim Federle’s Better Nate than Ever.
- DeMarcus Jones in Brooks Benjamin’s My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights.
- Marginalia in China Mieville’s Kraken.
- Melia in Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers.
- Dr. Meredith Blitzmeyer in Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona.
How to Write Breakout Characters
Breakout characters are, by their nature, a bit of a paradox. They have to be woven of the same stuff as your main characters, and they have to clearly belong in your world, but they have to step away from it, too. They have to step sideways into their own concerns, and take action based on a set of objectives and goals we as readers may not have been paying attention to at all. And that’s something that can only happen when a writer is so honest about a character, and so immersed to the world, that they come to life on their own terms in the story that’s been created and centered around someone else.
Not every book needs a breakout character, but holy Narcissa Malfoy are they memorable and fun to read.
So, if you’re working on a project right now, go ahead and pick a scene, take a long hard look in your characters’ eyes, and see if you can spot that little sparkle, that little glint, that massive raging bonfire of someone just waiting for their moment to step forward, take the main character’s story arc firmly in their hands, and break out.
Then grab some fresh coffee, crack your knuckles over your keyboard, and give them the chance.