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09:02 pm: Rant on fleshing out secondary and tertiary characters

‘Secondary characters’ is the term I use for, well, people secondary to the protagonist. (There are specialized cases where the person telling the story isn’t the hero, as in The Great Gatsby, but they’re rare and I won’t be talking about them here). ‘Tertiary characters’ are those who still play enough of a part in the story to have roles and names, but aren’t as important as the secondary characters.

They’re still important, though, enough to warrant more attention than they receive. So here’s how to go about getting them that attention.

1) Make them act in accordance with their own motives. These motives can be more plot-driven than the protagonist’s; while he might learn self-knowledge, for example, the other characters might be more tangled up in the political conspiracy that’s there to show the protagonist his self-knowledge in the first place. But if you use them for such a purpose, that use has to make sense.

Consider every mysterious conversation that happens when an innocent protagonist and a more knowing secondary character converse. Think of the sly hints that get dropped, the smirks that ensue, the usual warnings along the lines of “You’ll find out someday.” Then, when you know what secret the secondary character was hiding, go back and read the conversation again.

Doesn’t it seem as though the author sometimes has the secondary character reveal unnecessary information, information that could hurt her, or information that actually goes against whatever motive she had for keeping the secret? Sometimes, yes. This is a sign that the author is more fascinated with the protagonist than the story.

*Limyaael hits such authors on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper*

Bad, bad author. ‘Story’ is what arises out of the intersection of the protagonist, the plot, the setting, the secondary characters, the language used to relate all of them, and many other small aspects of the larger whole. It can’t be the hero alone. Sure, love your hero all your like. But when you start warping the motives of the secondary characters to make the hero look better or give him an easier time of it, you’re in love, rather than loving. And that really needs to stop.

The secondary and tertiary characters are the heroes of their own stories. If they reveal information to the hero, it has to be because they like him and want to help him, because it benefits them in some way, or because, for whatever other reason, they’ve decided they want to or must. They shouldn’t switch motives like automatons just because the author wants to show off some aspect of his hero’s personality.

2) Give them roles that don’t relate to the hero. In poor fantasies with a stock party of companions (hi, David Eddings!), you can see the secondary and tertiary characters just falling into line. There’s the comic relief, there’s the lovable rogue, there’s the warrior with a dark and mysterious past, there’s the love interest, there’s the wise old mentor…

The problem is not that these people have these traits, but that who they are in relation to the protagonist is the only thing ever developed about them. The comic relief character doesn’t crack jokes for their own sake or to compensate for insecurity or for any other internally driven reason, but to cheer the hero up. If the love interest plays coy and hard to get, it must be because she’s unsure if the hero loves her, not because she’s done that with other guys before. (She will also, almost invariably, be a virgin, and her sex with the hero will be the best sex she’s ever had or will have. This tires me). The wise old mentor has spent his whole life waiting to train this perfect hero, and doesn’t have any concern but seeing that the hero survives and saves the world. And so on.

They must be people outside the hero, too. What were they like before they interacted with him? What scars and joys and sorrows and triumphs do they carry? What perfectly rational motives might be driving them to help him or obstruct his quest, without those motives being reduced to the simplistic duality of “loves him!” or “serves the Dark Lord!”? How do they live, when they aren’t being characters in his story?

I’ve heard that the absolute triumph in storytelling is to create protagonists that will step from the page, engage the reader’s heart, and make her feel as if she knows these people. While I think that’s admirable, it’s also only a quarter of the real storytelling goal, for me. The best writers also create plots that unfold naturally, settings that make me feel as if I’ve been there, and secondary and tertiary characters who don’t behave as if they only sprang into being when the hero walked past.

But how do you characterize them without bloating the story unnecessarily and dragging the plot down with endless rounds of exposition?

There are ways.

3) Show them reacting to and playing off each other. It struck me recently how rare true rivalries, love affairs, and other passionate relationships among secondary characters are in fantasy novels. Sure, there are the mechanical pairings-off that a lot of authors do at the end of the trilogy, and the character whose sole reason for existing is to get back at the man who murdered his father—a revenge he’ll almost surely surrender because the hero told him to—and the character who faces a fear and overcomes it with the help of the protagonist. But the secondary and tertiary characters having relationships of their own is damn scarce on the ground. Even all those conversations that the hero manages to overhear are nearly never about, say, the illicit love affair that the two caravan guards are having. They’re about the hero, instead.

Why shouldn’t they live with each other? Even if the hero is the mysterious-past-having, tragic-dream-dreaming, odd-colored-hair-possessing, god-favored key to doing everything right, he’s not the only person in the party, not the only one who will enliven and irritate and cheer and arouse the others.

Show two secondary characters existing in a charmed circle of their own, with the hero watching as the third wheel for once. Show two sisters taking care of each other, without expanding the family circle to include the poor lonely orphaned hero. Show a rivalry that the protagonist thinks he’s repairing, and is actually unconsciously encouraging; when he forces the two fighters to make up, they do, but then they meet later and duel behind his back.

All of this is easier with an ensemble story, of course, where there are multiple characters who are the heroes of their own lives. But it isn’t impossible in a single-viewpoint story. In fact, by some of the conventional personality traits that fantasy authors choose for their heroes, it should happen a lot more often. So this person is perceptive, intelligent, empathic, and committed to watching others and trying to consider what they want before he acts. Why the hell isn’t he seeing all this, then? Why isn’t his mind occupied at least as much by other people as our own minds are? And why are their minds never occupied with anything but him?

4) Show what personality traits these characters share with the hero—without turning them into passive mirrors. There’s probably an Official Literary Term ™ for this kind of character, but I haven’t found it, so I’ll call them “mirrors.” These aren’t foils; the purpose of those stock characters is to act as the hero’s opposites. Mirrors are those characters who reflect back just enough of the hero that he can, essentially, check the state of his teeth and hair and clean up if he’s falling apart. The strongest reaction he has to their traits is a “There but for the grace…” feeling. Always, their personalities lead back to the hero, by an even more direct route than usual.

Is the protagonist cunning? There could be a second cunning character. But, of course, he’ll slip up and get caught, serving as an object lesson to the hero not to do so.

Is the protagonist brave? There could be a second brave character. But that character will cross the line into foolhardiness, while the hero won’t (though sometimes, when the hero is the one dashing madly into danger and getting praised for it, I’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference).

This is completely and utterly and stupidly silly, given the opportunities that present themselves when a hero and a secondary character share a trait. They can form a common bond of friendship that would be a lot more credible than some of the fantasy friendships I’ve seen. They can despise each other all the more because they’re somewhat like each other, in a way too strong to be ignored. Or the hero could presume that, because this person is a little like him, he knows how that person will react, and then…fail badly, because while the secondary character has that trait, the reasons behind the way he acts are too different to let the hero’s trap take him.

Use these characters as more than mirrors. Give the hero some of that perceptiveness he supposedly has, and let him wonder what lies behind their eyes. Or, even better, let that similarity trip him up. Heroes don’t make enough mistakes.

5) Put some secondary and tertiary characters higher than the hero, and make them deserving of their positions. Plenty of fantasy stories start out with the protagonist in a second best position, or as the lowest of the low, a slave or a nameless orphan or a stranger in a strange land. By the end of the story, he’s usually the ruler, the leader, the rebel hero making trouble for the king, etc. If he’s not, there’s a strong implication that he’s the one who saved the king’s or ruler’s bacon, and who is the better person. This is usually justified as part of the protagonist’s growing up.

Nowhere in the maturation process, I think, is there a requirement that the objective reality and everyone for fifty miles gather around the now mature hero and give him three cheers. We might like that to happen, but fantasy is not all about adolescent wish fulfillment, nor should it be. Growing up can happen alone and in difficult ways as well as publicly and with everyone wishing you well. In fact, I think that makes for the more poignant story.

But this is the secondary and tertiary character rant, not the bildungsroman rant, which I already did. Why not have secondary and tertiary characters achieve the positions usually reserved for the hero, instead, or be in them when the book starts, and show why they deserve them? It would (as almost every point on this list does, I think) give you more chances than just the chance to grow real people. It would also provide a solid backbone for your history. If the king was truly corrupt and incompetent and weak, surely his nobles would have done something about him long before the hero came on the scene. It also makes the plot more interesting. The hero can’t depend on armies to back him up, so how’s he going to save the day? And it lets you show more mythic figures, using the very limitations that secondary characters are usually strangled by. It’s hellish to write a good king as the hero and not constantly tell the reader, instead of show her, what a good king this is. But keep the king as a nice golden distant figure, and it’s easier.

Those are only a few benefits of this. I’m sure you can think of more.

6) Leave shadows in the background. This is because shadows add depth.

We may know everything about the hero, whether we’ve followed him from childhood or not. In fact, most fantasy authors cannot stand for you not to know the most insignificant fact about the hero, and if they start him off as a teenager or adult, they’ll be sure to infodump everything you’ve missed in a huge flashback or ten-page long monologue that the hero rattles off the moment someone else asks him. In the hands of mediocre authors, this leads to the protagonists becoming flatter instead of deeper. There’s too much light, not enough shadows.

Secondary characters are the perfect opportunity to remind your reader that there are mountains they’ve never seen and valleys they’ll never visit. Is this tertiary character the only inhabitant of Merethen they’ll ever meet, because you’ve made the (wise) decision not to drag your readers all over your map and so they’ll never visit Merethen? Let him be a window on the culture. Let him swallow golden spice and kiss his fingers to the wind without explaining what every gesture means. This gets in the cultural background and the characterization at the same time. It’s hard to beat.

Perhaps a secondary character joins the party for a time, profoundly unsettles the hero, and then gets killed. The hero won’t get to hash everything out with him, won’t get to duel and better him, won’t find a suicide note that “explains everything.” The story’s been touched by a walking mystery, and that mystery gets inside the hero and gnaws away a bit of his heart and lies down in it. He’ll be a different person, but not because he’s “understood” the secondary character and so swallowed him whole. He’ll have to understand himself as a reflection in a mirror for once. This is neat.

Perhaps the hero is pretty proud of himself for his fighting skill, until the party passes through a town and he sees the single best swordsman in that part of the world dueling all comers. And he’s doing it for free, and laughing with passion as he does it. Looking at him, the hero knows he’ll never match him, never know just what it’s like to fight that well, and knows he’ll never understand what that swordsman thinks of him, if he thinks of him at all. He sees light in the other man’s eyes and lightning in his skill, and for a moment, he’s transported out of himself. More heroes also need this.

Put some more shadows in the story. Anything could be lurking in them.

I am quite pleased with myself at the moment.

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