Kay: On the Road with Journey Novels

A view of Highgate Cemetery

Today I’m in London, visiting Jilly, and we will go (or have gone) to Highgate Cemetery, a place I’ve always wanted to see. George Eliot is buried here, as well as Christina Rossetti, Radclyffe Hall, Douglas Adams (author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Karl Marx, George Michael, and 170,000 other famous and not-so-famous people.

I’ll be gone for more than three weeks—after I leave here, I go to Italy where I’ll meet up with another friend in Bologna and then take a bus trip around the country. I’m looking forward to it all—brainstorming with Jilly in addition to doing fun stuff—and then seeing the high spots of Italy, a country I’ve never been to.

I think travel is good for people. It puts you in different and sometimes complex situations that challenge you to see events, places, and people in new ways. It can stimulate your thinking and creativity. And it’s fun.

Donald Maass, a literary agent, has a post up about his latest travels. He and his family and dog are driving New York to Seattle and back. They’ve been on the road for six weeks so far, not done yet, and he talks about the places and food, but most of all, the people they’ve encountered—the scary bikers who turned out to be on a charity ride, the waitress who talked to his kids about adoption. It’s the people you meet, he says, who make the trip something to remember.

It’s the same for journey novels, from Gulliver’s Travels to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Lord of the Rings. What makes those books stand out are the characters the protagonists encounter along the way. Maass says these secondary characters can be broken into three categories:

  1. Allies and fellow travelers
  2. Enemies
  3. Locals

Allies and fellow travelers support the protagonist and represent different facets of him or her. Enemies represent what is evil or wrong with the world. Locals reflect different dimensions of humanity—good, bad, and in-between. Every character represents something.

Consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck flees his violent and drunk father and his oppressive guardian. His main companion on his raft journey down the Mississippi River is the runaway slave Jim. Huck longs to be free. Jim is the outward representation of that. As they travel, escaping their oppressors, they meet a woman who tests Huck, a feuding family, two grifters who claim to be royal, Tom Sawyer, and many more. In some ways, Huck and Jim’s journey seems over the top, but Mark Twain needed all those strong secondary characters to show the hilarity and hypocrisy of humanity. And the book is still memorable today because of them.

Sharp and insightful secondary characters are critical for any book, not just journey novels. If you think your secondary characters are too blah, Maass has some prompts that could help you sharpen them:

  • Who are your protagonist’s friends, allies, and supporters? Name one quality each has that your protagonist lacks. Create one moment that demonstrates that good quality.
  • Who works against your protagonist? How does each antagonistic character manifest the worst of human nature? What is the justifying philosophy of each? What is the worst thing that each can do to your protagonist?
  • List the secondary characters your protagonist encounters in your novel’s middle. What would each represent or tell us about human nature if your name was Dante, Orwell, Tolkien, or Grimm? Find one way to grow that symbolic meaning.

I’m not planning to read any journey novels while I’m traveling, but you never know what I’ll find. Do you have any favorites? Or are you writing a journey novel? How are you using secondary characters in your own book?


8 thoughts on “Kay: On the Road with Journey Novels

  1. At some craft class or another, I picked up the idea of constructing a pie chart, where each slice is a character trait. Around the rim, you write the name of the secondary who allows the protagonist to reflect that characteristic. Not exactly what you described, but related.

    Enjoy your trip!

  2. That’s an interesting idea, Jeanne! And a good way to keep everything front and center, too. I’ll have to keep that in mind.

    Thank you for good wishes! Highgate cemetery is as fantastic as I’d imagined. And we had beautiful weather for it, too.

  3. Great post Kay; you’ve definitely given me something to think about.

    My favorite journey novel is Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. The heroine, Daphne, is trying to find her kidnapped brother and the hero (Rupert) is her unlikely champion. The book is a race through Egypt with danger, bad guys, suspense, and of course some humor and passion.

    Did you enjoy the cemetery? Jilly and I made a trip there last year when I was in London and found it fascinating; so many, many stories there. Have a wonderful time on the rest of your trip. I’m envious, even though I just got home myself.

  4. Not to be alarmist, but . . . OMG, ARE YOU OK? (okay, I guess that was alarmist)

    I assume both you and Jilly were far, far away from the IED that exploded in London, and that you are only experiencing the normal sorts of inconvenience that might follow such an event.

    I’ve not been having a good week myself, but mostly because I’m fighting off a cold. The brain fog prevents me from remembering which book it was, but there was a book about a British lady adventurer in the last 19th century — I think it was the one who went to Colorado and slept outside for her TB (it’s been a very long time), but honestly, I’d love to sample any of those travelogues. I think they are the closest we really can get to real-life “space travel and meeting aliens”.

    OH, I do remember a great travel book — the story of Nelly Bly, who went around the world in 72 days as a newspaper stunt. Fascinating woman, and the travel book was quite interesting, and in internet archives. I think I read a few of her books in the Hathi Trust. Well, here’s the place to start, I guess: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Around_the_World_in_Seventy-Two_Days

    The childen’s book about Nelly’s journey is also worthwhile — lots of great pictures! I can’t find it.

    Sending best wishes for good travels!

    • Hi Micki, hi everyone! So sorry for the poor people who were hurt and inconvenienced by the explosion in London yesterday. We saw it on the news, like most other people. The only other unusual thing we saw was a couple of uniformed police officers outside my local Tube station. Kay and I went into town last night–on a jam-packed tube–and had a fabulous evening. More on that tomorrow, if I can get the post finished 😉 . There were people everywhere, enjoying the start to the weekend (and not to be morbid, but we were in the area around London Bridge and Borough Market, scene of one horrible recent attack).

      As an ordinary person, I feel one of the most important things we can do is to continue to live our lives the way we want, to the full and without fear. I’m glad to say that mindset was very much in evidence yesterday.

      More exciting travels are on the agenda for today, but no spoilers–reports to follow!

      • I’m glad to hear you are both OK, and “carrying on”. I don’t know if there really anything the average citizen can do about that kind of thing, except to say something if they see something. They say that we’ve been living in a safer and safer society, and I believe them. But on one hand, it just makes it even more shocking when someone carries out a random act of violence.

        As for dealing with it, I’m of two minds. I could just ignore the state of the world, but the thing is, it niggles at my mind. Or, I could wallow in a fear-fest, which would be paralyzing and highly annoying for everyone around me — but maybe by overindulging, I could actually exorcise the fear. Or maybe there is some magical mystical middle road that skates between the two. I’m not very good at balancing, though.

        We had a typhoon brush past us yesterday morning, and in the afternoon, my phone went off three times. The first time, there was no explanation; just a warning to evacuate to a nearby community center. And to turn on the radio or TV for more details — well, that was a joke. The national radio station had some jokers chatting happily about the Rolling Stones, but I knew if they were talking about Mick Jagger, we probably weren’t under attack or due for a major earthquake. The other two times the alert went off, it was to sound all-clears for two different areas (and this time, they did mention it was for flooding).

        The thing is, we don’t know what’s in Pandora’s Box until we look at the phone. I was driving and my phone was in my pocket; luckily, my friend was able to take it from me and check out what was happening. Just the sound of an alert makes my heart race. We’ve got to figure out a better way, but it seems like the only way to do that is to go through a few dozen worse ways.

  5. Pingback: Jilly: Travels With Kay – Eight Ladies Writing

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