On secondary characters

Ah, the secondary character. Interesting creatures. As writers, we either love them more than we should, or throw them in to push the story forward. As readers, we either… love them more than we should, or find them annoying detours on the path to characters we care about more. This post on the plight of secondary characters by Hayley B James got me thinking about them again.

For the last few years I’ve been tooling around with a trilogy of novels, “A Frequent Traveller’s Guide to Jovan”, and its sequel/spinoff “Philomena”. Jovan is a political fantasy series which has at its core a family drama, surrounded by a broad cast of heroes, villains, royals, nobles, schemers and rebels to back them up. Being unable to resist the sprawling epic mode of storytelling, I have written a lot of secondary characters recently. And I have enjoyed it a lot.

On The Charms of Secondary Characters

As both a writer and a reader, I think the the secondary characters are the most interesting. Why?

  1. Because they are often the “minority” character. In today’s (traditional) publishing world, and the world of the big and little screens, there are well-documented difficulties with getting anything out that has anything other than a white, straight male lead (or at least, a white, straight female lead with a love interest). So the best friend, sibling, colleague, whatever is often where the author has the opportunity to include people of other genders than male, other ethnicities than white, and other sexual orientations than straight. Given the popularity, interest and resonance of non-male, LGBTQ and POC secondary characters, you would think that traditional media would loosen up about letting them carry their own stories. Seriously. :/
  2. Because authors give intense attention to the characterisation and character journey of their leads, but secondary characters are often written less self-consciously. Often writers really want you to like or hate certain characters and they are written that way. Others are just thrown in, and do whatever, and often those characters are unexpectedly fascinating because they haven’t been crafted. They emerge. You get hints of their character and you can fill in the gaps.
  3. Because the stakes are higher with secondary characters. Seriously, they could die. Any time. And it won’t be a big parade, crowds of mourners and loved ones crouching close to hear their last gasped words, either.
  4. Because their stories often have genuine pathos. Another thing I’ve noticed is that because the stakes are higher and writers are more free to experiment with secondary characters, their stories are often more challenging, more touching, and ultimately very compelling.

Of course, the flip side is also true. Some stories really neglect their secondary characters, who are all cardboardy, plot-forwarding devices who care a really strange amount about helping or hindering the protagonist and frequently act in ways blatantly counter to their self interest, or disappear after one scene, never to return.

Senna’s Rules for Secondary Characters

I give myself basically three rules I give myself for secondary characters:

  1. Make sure “guest” characters aren’t defined by one trait – or if they are, at least make sure it isn’t a stereotype.
  2. Think about the story from their eyes. If they were the star, how would the scene play out? Make sure they’re interesting enough in their own right that you would be willing to write a spin-off from their eyes.
  3. But nonetheless don’t give them undue prominence (eg, the “token female”). Nobody likes that.

Making sure guest characters aren’t defined by one trait

And as the ever-so-wise Limyaael says:

I’ve heard it touted as good advice, to give your character a unique physical trait to bring him to life in the reader’s eyes—copper hair, violet eyes, a scar on his face. Problem is, it too often does not go beyond that. The character becomes the physical trait. The author feels no need to build him, because after all, you can tell who he is, right? He’s the “fall of long copper-colored hair” guy.

This is so simple and obvious; I would say I hope nobody does this, but basically everyone does. Including me. The example that comes to mind from the Frequent Traveller’s Guide is Marcellus Mereius, whose sole function in Volume I was to be Cassius’ old flame – as a bonus, he has a limp, and contrasts with Cassius in that despite preferring men he’s gone and got married for the family’s sake. I have no excuse for that, except that I was busy. Later in the story I came back to Marcellus and expanded his role, character and motivations.

Think about the story from their eyes.

I think one of the best (and most egregious) examples of this was from Supernatural–the short-lived and ill-fated Bela Talbot. I really thought she was quite wonderful as a character; most of the fans of the show hated her. That show shuffled everyone into good and bad, vis a vis the Dean and Sam Winchester, not Society At Large. And sometimes they flipped between good and bad, like Henrickson, but they were never in the middle. All the guest stars, were intensely focused on placing themselves within the paradigm. This is the sorting paradigm of the show, and every time Bela appeared, I expected her to finally sort herself, to evince some form of actual feeling towards the show’s protagonists. But unlike everyone else on the show, she couldn’t care less what Sam and Dean were up to. In the Bela Show, Sam and Dean were just people who happened to have something she wanted.

I found this dynamic completely fascinating, and so much more realistic, because why on earth did all these guest characters constantly drop everything else they were doing to drive cross-country to help out the Winchesters? Didn’t Ellen ever just say, “Sorry boys, I’m kinda busy”?

What I learned from Bela, what I have tried to do to give my supporting characters (particularly the women) respect in the story, is to always think about how a scene would play out if it were their story and Cassius and Valentin were the guest stars. I think in many cases, stories are unrealistic in how much the supporting characters want to help – or hinder – the leads. In my opinion, most people simply wouldn’t really care, and would be more interested in pursuing their own goals.

As Limyaael has wisdom here too:

It might make sense if the heroine’s rival is obsessed with her. It makes no sense when a secondary viewpoint character trying to set up a dangerous and important scouting mission spends more paragraphs worrying about whether the heroine has slept with the hero yet than whether he’ll get back alive. Your heroine is most likely the center only of her own consciousness and the narrative. Don’t make everything in your fantasy world lead back to her.

My challenge, then, in thinking about Valentin’s and Cassius’ relationship with the Empress in my web novel series, is always trying to show how they are useful to her. If they are always playing up, then there is no way she would keep them in the capital. So the challenge was showing that the Empress finds them useful enough to overlook some of their misbehaviour. I’m not sure how I’ve succeeded in this objective, but it is something I am constantly aiming for.

Don’t give them undue prominence (eg, the “token female”). Nobody likes that.

Readers aren’t stupid. If you put in a character just because the Handbook says the story should have gender equality, a social conscience, a romance plot, whatever, they’ll know. And they’ll hate you for it. How do you avoid it? This is so simple I can’t even understand why people still do this. It comes down to,

  1. Having more than one female, POC, LGBTQ, etc, character, and having them behave differently from each other. And,
  2. Following on from the above, have them behave like actual people, and have them have an actual reason to be there. My [personal least favourite thing is the plucky girl-heroine who forces her way into the quest and is then basically used to allow the man characters to rescue her periodically. And she usually has an “empowered, feminist” attitude about it. Instead, outline the characters you need in the story, and then assign genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities to them, because none of those things have a bearing on skills and abilities as relevant to ruling, questing, flying a space ship, being a high-powered executive, etc. Getting to the baseline of non tokenism is not difficult. Getting above the baseline is more of a challenge, which may be part of a post for another day.

So what are some great secondary characters you have come across, what are the principles you use to make sure you do secondary characters right, and do you think you’re any good at it? Discuss!

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