tory guru Lisa Cron recently wrote an excellent article for Writer Unboxed, Don’t Accidentally Give Your Characters a Time Out, where she asked the question: Where do your characters go when they aren’t in the scene you’re writing? Although the answer seems obvious (“Well, they’re doing stuff”), I realized I hadn’t fully considered the question and that I was probably as guilty as anyone about ignoring my little babies one they exited the stage. The good news: they say that half the battle is knowing, so once I knew I was guilty of character-neglect, I took action. I decided to work out what had happened to my novel’s citizens thus far and see what trajectories they were on – and what actions they’ll take as a result – while offstage, and then see how that exercise impacted the overall narrative of the story.
I started with Isabelle’s godfather, Vincent Auvray. (Isabelle is the protagonist of The Gospel of Isabelle Dequenne.)
It’s 1937 France, and in the last 24 hours, Vincent Auvray has learned that an old flame, Louise Dequenne (Isabelle’s aunt), now married and living in Montréal, is coming to France and that Isabelle’s family plans to meet Louise in Cherbourg before Louise continues on to meet her husband in Paris. That in and of itself is enough to send Vincent Auvray out to the Dequenne farm to find out from Alain Dequenne (Louise’s brother and Isabelle’s father) what’s going on.
On top of that, Vincent learned from Isabelle that Alain had a traumatic shellshock episode (shellshock was the WWI term for PTSD) at home in front of the family. Vincent, who served in the French army in World War I with Alain, and who was with Alain when his two brothers were killed at an especially horrific battle called Chemin des Dames, would want to checkup on his friend.
Lastly, as Isabelle’s godfather, Vincent would want to check in on her and make sure she’s ok after all the agitation she expressed about seeing her father collapse and break down as he relived being buried alive during an artillery barrage. Even though Vincent explained to Isabelle what was going on with her father (“Sometimes survivors don’t survive all the way”), he would want to follow up.
So that’s three things – the return of his old flame, Alain’s shellshock, and Isabelle’s fear and agitation – that would be on Vincent’s mind while he’s offstage and which would cause him to take action. So when the narrative resumes the next day at the Dequenne farm in a scene with 10-year-old Isabelle, her 12-year-old brother Marc-Pierre, and Isabelle’s friend Marie-Thérèse, it feels completely natural and right for Vincent Auvray to make a brief appearance as he arrives at the farm to check on Alain and Isabelle. This action gives Vincent depth and roundness as a character, and, even cooler, his offstage decision to check in on the Dequenne family drive the larger actions of this scene in which he so briefly appears. Bonus!
So how does that work? Well, when Vincent arrives at the farm, he is introduced to Isabelle’s friend, Marie-Thérèse Allard, and learns that Marie-Thérèse’s father Paul, also an old friend and war buddy, is at the farm visiting the Dequennes. Vincent asks Isabelle how she is doing and how her father is doing, and then disappears into the house, completely removing him from the scene.
The effects of Vincent’s actions ripple through the story. Vincent, Alain, and Paul, unexpectedly reunited, get trashed in Alain’s brandy distillery. Alain’s absence forces Marc-Pierre to fetch his friend Laurent to help him with something he normally does with his father – loading large milk cans onto a wagon that he drives out to the pasture where Isabelle is milking the cows. And Vincent’s removal of Alain gives the kids a chance to cook up a scheme to invade the town butcher’s cellar without any pesky adults around.
To all of this add that another minor character’s offstage actions, those of Laurent’s father Martin, the mayor of Pont-Bocage, are the catalyst for the idea to invade the cellar in the first place, and you start to see the power that tracing the lives and arcs of offstage characters has. To further develop the example and clarify the point, it’s Martin Martel that Marc-Pierre overhears making strange sounds up in the garret at Laurent’s house when he goes to pick up Laurent. When asked to explain, Laurent reveals that his father wants to be an actor, is taking an acting correspondence class, and is up in the garret reciting Macbeth, specifically Banquo’s ghost. Hearing about the ghost inspires the kids to investigate the butcher’s cellar for haunted spirits, which is the critical action of the upcoming scene – a scene which reveals a critical fact that drives the entire novel. All of this happens because the actions of offstage characters are woven into the foreground narrative. In the same way that small levers can move worlds, a character’s offstage actions can shape, drive, and influence the plot of an entire novel.
What do you think about developing the actions and lives of offstage characters? What challenges do you face? What successes have you had? Share your thoughts in the comments!