The Art of Support
By: Ashley Mackler-Paternostro
“Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain” - The Wizard, The Wizard of Oz
I was once told by an English teacher that writing a good protagonist is important, but it’s the people around the protagonist that make a story shine. That without them, the all-important supporting cast, it’s nearly impossible to tell a round, whole, fleshed out story.
Creating interesting secondary characters is paramount to the tone and tidal pull of a novel. They become the way a reader learns of the background, they take the voice of reason, they steer the story at times. They can be a villain or a force of good. They are often the most relatable, sometimes they stand to build in conflict and sometimes drive they resolution.
It’s a balance, writing these characters into the thick of a story. You have to do it just right, enough without being too much.
I’m bias of course, but I enjoy all of my characters in The Milestone Tapes. I didn’t write them to be perfect people, they are not without their flaws, but still ... it is in their imperfections that I find I adore them. I am, however, particularly fond of Ginny.
When I outlined The Milestone Tapes it was really no more than the quickest dash of ideas; things I wanted to include and how the novel would close itself off, so on and forth. It wasn’t until I got to know Jenna, to spend a little time in her life, that I realized she needed someone, someone I hadn’t yet given to her. Someone I never thought to include.
This dying mother needed another woman to talk to, someone who would get her on another level, one that not even her husband could. Jenna needed someone to help pick up the pieces of her life and be a baseline for her family now and seamlessly transition into what was coming next for them. That “this someone” would have be the sort of woman that Jenna could trust entirely with her fears and the unknown future, but most of all, trust with her child. And so, Ginny was born.
I knew when I wrote Ginny exactly the role she would fill. I knew how I wanted to weave her into the novel, and the voice she’d have, what sort of connection she would build with the primary characters and the impact she would have on.
Ginny is a women who has seen the changes in her personal life unfold. That, I thought, was so important to put into her, it would be the way I shaped her moving forward. Giving her that sort back story and history that would allow her to approach this time in the Chamberland’s life with the realization and knowledge that the world doesn’t end after a loss, it changes, but it goes on.
As I started to figure out who Ginny was and where she came from, I realized she needed to have been a wife and mother and now a widow and an empty nester. That she was starting over, beginning a new chapter in her life that scary and unknown but one she could embrace. She needed to have the flexibility, the personal knowledge of grief and new beginnings to relate to the family at the heart of this story.
At first Ginny’s a very quiet character supporting Jenna entirely with kindness, trying to understand Jenna’s choices. But as the novel goes on she become louder, making the transition from what Jenna needed her to be, into what Mia needed of her. They are very different needs. Jenna needed a friend, Mia needed a mother.
Ginny is the character, in my mind, that makes the biggest change through the most subtle ways. She goes from being the hired help of a woman who is overwhelmed by fate, to raising a little girl full time and loving her as her own. She had done that, for her own children, and just when she believed that part of her life was over, she finds herself beginning again.
Ginny is capable of this patience with Mia that no one else is, because she herself has loved someone and lost him. And then, in the same moment, she knows how to release Mia into the world without fear or hesitance, because she’s done that before as well.
Ginny will tell you, in the novel, that the only thing she is good at is raising children ... but I think she sells herself short. Ginny is good at being what people need her to be without trying too hard. She is selfless and loving, she’s a safe place for people who are scared and she became exactly what the Chamberland’s needed, effortlessly rolling with their changing lives.
Ginny is, in and of herself, throughout her time with the Chamberland’s, the life cycle of a parent. The mother, then friend, it just happens to be reversed. And it’s quiet, a docile undercurrent. But without her presence in The Milestone Tapes, the entire story would be so different.
My question to you all ... who is your favorite support character in a novel and why?
THE MILESTONE TAPES
By Ashley Mackler-Paternostro
Jenna Chamberland never wanted anything more than to be a wife and mother. That is, until she realized that her life was ending after a three-year battle against breast cancer. Now, all she really wants is more time.
With 4,320 hours left to live, Jenna worries for her loved ones and what she knows awaits them on the other side: Gabe will have to make the slip from husband to widower, left alone to raise their seven-year-old daughter; Mia will be forced to cope with life without her mother by her side. In a moment of reflection, Jenna decides to record a set of audiocassettes — The Milestone Tapes – leaving her voice behind as a legacy for her daughter.
Nine years later, Mia is a precocious sixteen-year-old and her life is changing all around, all she wants is her mother. Through the tapes, Jenna’s voice returns to teach Mia the magic of life, her words showing her daughter how to spread her wings and embrace the coming challenges with humor, grace and hope.
THE MILESTONE TAPES is the journey of love between a parent and child, and of the bonds that hold them when life no longer can.
Excerpt From THE MILESTONE TAPES
With much determination, Jenna willed her fingers to press the record button. She couldn’t allow herself to think about how silly she felt speaking the paramount words to only herself and a small tape recorder in the dark of her office, years and years before they’d even harbor an inkling of truth. Or, how heartbreaking it felt to know that eventually she would be finished recording and the silence left behind would speak volumes.
She had no notes, no frame of reference and no way of knowing exactly what her daughter would need to hear when she finally, in time, came about pressing play. All she had was a list, a list of milestones and a corresponding blank tape.
The fear and utter sadness of that enveloped her like an inferno, burning her, buckling her heart and breaking her in a million ways that would remain unseen, as so many other breaks did. She would never really know if she got it right, of course. She’d. Never. Know. And, if she were being honest now, that realization had been the driving force behind the recordings to begin with.
Hadn’t that knowledge pinged her so many months ago, while the quiet of the morning and darkness of her home gave the illusion of peace and rightness, and did nothing more than make her think.
But even more than that, wasn’t the unknown what she’d been fighting all along. Trying to somehow rally against what the doctors told her was inevitable, trying to be the exception rather than the rule. Jenna knew that she had fought hard, battled with every moment, with umpteen doctors, with every drug, every needle or pill or hope. The fighting had never been the problem; it was simply what she was fighting against. That thing, so bound and determined to win.
So now she was left with the unknown. All of the things that couldn’t possibly be known. It was no longer a question of science, medicine and time. Now it was a matter of fate, faith and the natural unfolding of things. Jenna had resolved that, although everything moving forward would be unknown, she would plan and prepare and hedge her bets like a mother would, she would bet on her daughter, and leave behind her voice.
She knew her little girl now. She knew the determined expression that would cross her face when they worked together side by side in the expansive kitchen she had designed for family time and togetherness. She knew the jubilant smile that would never fail Mia’s face when she huddled over her English homework, letting her unique brand of creativity roll off in waves, limited only by what she could spell and express at seven years old. She knew the tell-tale face of a fib or half truth, Mia’s mouth dropping open just enough, as she tried not to smile and tried harder to convey honesty. She knew the way Mia’s lower lips would tremble as she departed the bus when the kids had been less than kind, running for the security of home and the comfort of her mom, running to the place that would nurture and welcome her budding individualism rather than shy away from it.
Jenna knew Mia better than she knew herself in every single way possible; she was her mother. From the very beginning, her baby girl had been the epitome of a miracle in Jenna’s eyes and remained steadfast in that role forever after. Mia was Jenna’s sole reason for the death match that spanned out behind them now, defining holidays and birthdays, along every other ordinary day. Mia was reason and logic, hope and heartbreak; she was Jenna’s dream personified. The prose of that would have made Jenna laugh, had the thoughts and feelings ambushed her in a normal life. But in her life, their life as a family with their singular child, the emotional turmoil was highlighted and hung from their only child. Jenna knew she could never, even if words flooded her, really say enough about her daughter.
But who would Mia be when these tapes became relevant?
Suddenly the unknown crept in again, playing around, twisting two or five or a million different landscapes. Landscapes Jenna would be absent for. Would Mia be analytical and thoughtful, living a life of logic and reason, a breathing echo of her father? Would her love of words bloom into a love of numbers? Or would she hold fast, stay true to her dreamy and creative nature?
Would some of these tapes be left, unheard, in their little plastic casings because they didn’t apply to Mia? And if they didn’t pertain, why not? But, if they did, and Mia needed them, and Jenna failed to push the worry aside, then what? What if Mia carried the responsibility, all the joys and all the burdens of life alone? The stark thought of that was enough to cripple Jenna.
Jenna pressed her finger firmly against the flat button with the red circle. She thought about the laughter and tears, the piles of homework, the family trips, the snuggles and hugs and kisses and fights. She thought about her husband, trying to understand the enigma that was the teenage girl. She pictured her daughter, grown up with a life, maybe even a family, of her own. And she felt courage; these tapes were not expectations, they were hopes— her hopes. And with all of that floating around in her head, she began.
“Mia … I love you.”
Ashley Mackler-Paternostro was born in Naperville, Illinois, where she still lives with her husband Mark and their three dogs.
A hairstylist by trade, Ashley will often say that some of the best stories she has ever heard were told to her while working behind the chair. A life long reader with an insatiable appetite for good books, she decided to merge her love of great stories — both told and written — into her own brand of story telling.
When she’s not being held captive in her home office by words, Ashley fancies herself a flea market hunter with a weakness for Japanese glass floats and repurposing vintage goods.
Writing was always in her blood from the time she was a little girl always eager to say something, but until a trip to the Olympic Peninsula in the spring of 2011 she never had the vision.
Ashley wrote her entire first novel with only three people knowing about it. She had no idea where this journey was going to take her or how she would finish it … or even if she would finish it.
Ashley’s writing style reflects the sort of books she herself enjoys reading. Never one to shy away from the uncomfortable or heartbreaking, her novels often ping into the defining moments of life in the middle of great conflict.
Before the launch of her first book, THE MILESTONE TAPES, she is already hard at work with the follow up.
Ashley is set to debut her first work of literary fiction in early 2012 with much excitement and enthusiasm.