Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Web Design from Scratch: Secondary Characters

Yesterday, I started a new blog series on planning, designing, and building your website. I asked you to think of your website as a novel or short story, and I started outlining how you could use the model of a story like this to plan your website.

I suggested that you put yourself, as the website owner, in the position of the protagonist in the story, and I came up with personal character motivations as the protagonist in the story I was planning.

Today, I'm moving on to the supporting cast of characters.

Secondary Character Motivations

The supporting cast in this story are the visitors to the website. They are the people I'm trying to interact with through my website, and I'm only going to reach my character goals through my interactions with them.

Here's the thing: much as in any good story, the secondary characters really don't much care what the motivation of the protagonist is, except inasmuch as it impacts on their own lives. My visitors don't care if I meet my goals. They have their own goals.

As George R.R. Martin put it, every character is the hero of their own story. Your visitors are following their own stories as they visit your website, and you need to know those stories if you want to be part of them.

There are three important questions to ask about every supporting character in a scene:
  1. Where are they coming from?
  2. What are they intending to get out of the interaction they have with the protagonist? (Hint: it's almost never the same as what the protagonist — you — wants out of it.)
  3. Where are they going to?
If you don't know those things, your supporting cast will be cardboard cut-outs; if you don't know these things for your website, those visitors won't be hanging about for long.

Okay, so I'm hoping my visitors will be:
  1. People who love reading fantasy short stories (particularly, but not exclusively, contemporary fantasy stories)
  2. Editors, publishers and other professionals in the field of middle grade fiction (particularly those with an interest in fantasy and steampunk middle grade fiction)
  3. In the future, middle grade readers, librarians, parents and so on.
You'll have your own potential visitors, and you should try to get as good an idea of them as possible. Once you know who they are, ask yourself the three questions above. It can be good to brainstorm these with someone else if you can.

Let's look at the first of my groups and try to understand them.

Fantasy Short Story Readers

1. Where are they coming from?
You can interpret this question in two ways: Physically, where are they coming from? And, what is their background?

(Jenny Crusie recently had an interesting blog entry where she asked herself the same question about the characters in the novel she's currently writing. Check it out if you want more inspiration to answer this question.)

"Physically", these readers are likely to come to my website because they've either:
  1. read one of my stories somewhere else (in a magazine, an online publication, or, conceivably having read one of my ebooks), 
  2. they've come across me elsewhere and I've seemed interesting (...), 
  3. they've read a review of one of my stories, 
  4. because someone has linked to me, or 
  5. because they've come across me in another context entirely and saw that I write fantasy short stories.
In terms of their background, this group of people already like fantasy. They probably know the genre reasonably well. Short stories are, generally, a smaller and more specialized part of the genre than novels; they're harder to come across and discover than fantasy novels.

Because my short stories range from YA to much older fiction, I don't think my readers are restricted in age, although I suspect most are adults, and probably in their thirties and forties. From what I can tell, both men and women read my stories.

Because of who these people are, I'm not going to have to sell the idea of fantasy, or the idea of these type of stories, to the readers. I'm having to sell them on the idea that my stories are interesting and exciting enough to read.

2. What are they intending to get out of the interaction?
Clearly, people come to your website for a reason. They have to click on a link to get there. They have something in mind. Even if they are randomly surfing out of boredom, they want something as a result of visiting your website. So, what do these readers want? I think there are three reasons that this group of people would visit my website.

  1. To read one or more of my short stories.
  2. To find out if any of my short stories seem interesting enough to actually read.
  3. To find out something about me (for whatever reason). We could drill down further on this to try to work out what they might want to know about me.
If I don't satisfy these desires of my subsidiary characters, they're not going to stay in the story I'm creating here. They'll decide it's not their story, and they'll head off elsewhere, never to return.

3. Where are they going?
This one is a bit more tricky.

What we're essentially asking, in the context of a story, is 'Where were they heading to after this interaction, and how have they been changed by the experience?'

This is the nature of interactions in stories; they cause changes of direction for someone (probably for everyone, although I'm only focusing on the secondary characters, right here).

We can ask the same questions for visitors to the website. Where were they heading next? For the most part, visitors will either be intending to go to another website (often to one of their usual haunts, like blogs or twitter or facebook, or, if they came looking for something to read, to another author website) or they are intending to go offline.

I want to interrupt this progress to another destination, or, if I can't interrupt it, then I want to create the desire in my visitors to come back. I want visitors to read my stories, so I want my stories to be a step on the visitor's path. They may still be going to their eventual destination, but I want them changed by the journey, in such a way that they'll read and enjoy my stories.

Likewise, if they came to read one of my stories in particular, I want them to go on to read others, and maybe even buy my ebooks. I want them to remember me as a writer for that possible future when I have a book or more stories to share.

Let's take a real life example for this particular question. A couple of years ago, my wife, Stephanie Burgis, visited Nalini Singh's website. She was only intending to visit quickly to find out when Singh's next book was out. But while she was there, she noticed that there were 'extras' available: free short stories, deleted scenes, behind the scenes stuff. She stuck around to read them.

As Singh keeps adding more, Steph goes back to read them. And, as a result, she's bought several novellas set in Singh's worlds. She became involved in the worlds, and Singh changed her as a result of the interaction.

This is what we're going to be aiming for in building the new website: A change in the subsidiary character (the visitor), so that their arc includes doing whatever it is we want them to do, while still satisfying the desires they had when they visited.

If you can answer these three questions for each of your groups of visitors:
  1. Where are they coming from?
  2. What are they intending to get out of the interaction they have with the protagonist?
  3. Where are they going to?
Then you will know what you need your website to do.

The next stage will be figuring out exactly how to do it, and that's what we'll be looking at next time on the blog (although sadly not this week...).

(Unless people particularly want me to, I won't blog the answers to the above questions for my other two groups of visitors, but the principle is the same.)

There are, of course, plenty of other ways you can look at your characters in a story. For example, by asking, What do they want? What are they doing to get it? What is standing in their way? And where do they end up? But I like the approach above because it allows me to focus on the interaction of the characters (visitors) with the protagonist (me) through the medium of the website. Use whichever works for you.

As always, feel free to leave comments, questions, or requests for anything you'd particularly like covered in this series.

If you want to follow along with this series but you're not interested in the rest of the blog, you'll be able to see all the entries under the web design from scratch tag.

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