Six impossible things

Secondary characters

First, a small announcement: Amazon has my Lyra novels on their Kindle monthly deal for $3.99 for the whole month of February, so if you don’t have them in e-book and want them, this is a reasonably good time to pick them up.

On to the post.

Secondary characters are frequently difficult for writers. Unlike walk-ons and minor characters, they have dialog and personalities and at least a little impact on the story (maybe even a small subplot), but they have much less presence than the major characters. They often give writers trouble for three reasons: first, they’re right on the tipping point between characters-who-are-furniture and characters-who-are-people; second, they are generally more difficult for the writer to get to know (particularly if the writer is a “write your way into the characters” sort); and third, they are more difficult to get across to the reader.

The tipping point problem is the first difficulty, and it contributes significantly to the other two. Secondary characters have too much dialog, too much stage time, and too much impact on the plot to be treated as mobile furniture or manikins with lines, but they rarely have enough stage time and dialog to give the reader more than a glimpse of their personalities or their personal stories. They’re too important to just walk on, give lines, and vanish, but there isn’t room for them to stand around musing about their angsty backstory. The writer can’t ignore them, the way he/she can ignore walk-ons and minor characters, but there’s no room to develop them fully without slowing the story to a crawl or changing its direction entirely.

Because secondary characters spend less time on stage than major characters, the writer has fewer words in which to get to know the character, and fewer words in which to get what he/she does know about the character across to the reader. In addition, secondary characters are rarely viewpoints, except in sprawling epic works where they’re usually given the viewpoint right before the writer kills them off. This means that the writer is never forced to examine what they think, and the reader never gets a look at the character’s internal reactions, which is where a lot of the complexity and “roundness” comes from for the protagonist and major characters.

If the writer does know a great deal about a particular character in advance, there’s always the temptation to stuff as much of the information as possible into the scene/story, whether it furthers the story or not. Some writers give in to this temptation because they have a need to let their readers know that they really did work out all the background details for everyone; some, because they are particularly proud or fond of one or more cool details they have invented; and some, because they have become overly fond of a particular character.

Occasionally, this can work to the benefit of a story; most of the time, though, the reader doesn’t need to know all that background for a character who – if looked at completely objectively – doesn’t actually have much of a part in the story, no matter how cool that character is.

Also, if you give the reader too much information for a secondary character (especially one who makes more than one appearance and/or doesn’t get killed off), that character is going to seem more important. The readers will start wondering whether than unhappy space captain’s family was really that bad, or wanting somebody to give that poor Uber driver a huge tip to pay for her daughter’s college tuition, and it is a short step from there to giving the character some personal subplots. Next thing you know, you have thirty “main characters,” each with a small subplot, and some of the bit players in their subplots are starting to accumulate so much backstory that they’ll end up starting subplots of their own. Pretty soon, the main plot has lost all drive and is buried in a hopeless tangle of the protagonist’s best friend’s butler’s daughter’s bodyguard’s sub-sub-subplot.

If a secondary character has a story that is so interesting and compelling that it has to be told, it’s usually strong enough to make into a short story, or even a side novel. If so, that’s what you do – you keep the secondary character secondary in the book you’re writing, leaving their story out of it, and then later on give them their own novel or short story later on. If the secondary character’s subplot can’t stand alone as its own story, the writer has to choose: leave it out of this book and let that be the end of it, or change this book to feature the former secondary character as a new major character, or even the protagonist. (This is a lot of work, but if it makes a better story…) Occasionally, a writer finds that he/she can take several of these unused plots that aren’t strong enough to stand on their own and mush them together to create a new story that is much more than the sum of its parts.

  1. Huzzah, I had just put a Lyra novel on hold at my library because they’re the only books you’ve writen that I haven’t read! What great timing.

    Not letting secondary characters slow down the story is something I will need to keep in mind. I have all these secondary character subplots in my head for my current project, and after the second assignment for the worldbuilding I can see that I am, as you say, fond of my cool details!

  2. I like getting to know my secondary characters – my problem is they often try to take over the plot. I like your idea of saving their stories for later.

  3. Ursula LeGuin said that her novel Rocannon’s World came about because a minor character in the short story “Dowry of the Angyar” (Not sure of the spelling) kept bugging her, “What about my story?”

  4. I actually had the difficulty getting the character across to the reader problem with the antagonist in my first novel. He’s a major character in terms of his impact on the story, but he doesn’t get a viewpoint. And because he and the POV character can’t stand each other, they don’t spend much time together, so he doesn’t get a lot of real screen time — and even when he does, the POV isn’t very sympathetic to him.

    I’d be interested to see a post on how to get such a character across to to the reader. I suspect many of the same techniques would work whether he’s a secondary or merely someone whose side of the argument is difficult to show.

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