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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Secondary Characters

I have a problem with secondary characters: I can't write them. I create someone and they are either horribly cliched, or they want to steal the show.

Authoress is hosting a SC contest, and I've been hammered by the Critters. Why? Because they can't tell MC from SC.

The scene I submitted (yes,unedited, bad me!) is from the POV of a secondary character. It's a common practice in science fiction books. I'm used to seeing it in my reading. Honestly, only a few sci-fi books jump out in memory as being exclusively from the MC's POV. In fact, my favorite science fiction books (other than Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell) are written from multiple character view points.

Why would anyone do that? Why can't writers pick a main character? I hear you cry....

My answer: One character, not matter how special, still has a limited POV.

When you write and read from multiple characters view points you get the whole story. You don't get things in piecemeal but as a whole 3D world.

I'll break from known trends and go so far as to admit that I don't think you should have a character in your writing that you can pick out as "secondary". Sometimes you need prop characters, you need desk clerks, cab drivers, and waiters. But those aren't secondary characters, those are furniture. A secondary character is like the supporting actor in a movie, they should be just as interesting as the main character. In fact, secondary characters can redeem a book when the MC is less than loveable.

In Terry Pratchett's Discworld series the failed wizard Rincewind is a major character. A whole set of the books follow his antics. And I could care less about Rincewind, he's wimpy, whiny, and general annoying. What I love about the Rincewind books are the secondary characters. Archchancellor Ridicully is one of my favorite people. The Librarian is my all time favorite ape. And I think the luggage deserves a medal.

In another series (unpublished) written by ----------- (name redacted since I haven't asked her permission) the MC is a nice girl, but I love her flamboyant best friend who is a secondary character. When the SC gets hit by a bullet she's found the next day in a hospital working from her bed and giving orders. She drags everyone out for a fancy dinner after a funeral. I like the MC, I love the SC. For those who are wondering I'm critiquing the book for the author and mentioning the occassional typo- that's why I have something pre-published to talk about. Give it 2 years, tops, and that book will be in print.

In the Price of the Stars series by Debra Doyle and James Macdonald the MC is, theoretically, Beka Rosselin-Metadi. In total, I think Beka has less than a quarter of POV in the main triology. Less than 25% of some 1500 pages is spent with the MC. Why? Because all the secondary characters are fully developed. Her brothers, prostitues, medics, antagonists and paper pushers make up the rest of the view points. None of the secondary characters are static or glorified furniture. Even the prop characters are well-fleshed out.

So, when don't you want strong secondary characters?

There have to be times, don't there, when you want your MC to stand out and to make everyone else in the book static or forgettable. ... I'm wording that wrong. You never want to make a character forgettable. But sometimes you don't want a secondary character to steal the show.

From my reading I would say romance, YA, and mid-grade novels are where you need the quiet SC the most. Why?

Romance, because the plot circles around a couple rather than focusing on some other epic quest. You want to make sure the romance is the focus rather than the quest, otherwise you have a fantasy with romance elements.

YA and mid-grade because 1) the reader may not be advanced enough to handle a complicated script and 2) you have a limited number of words you can use to get your point across and you don't want to waste pages on sub-plots when you could use those sub-plots for Book 2.

You will also see weak secondary characters in books written in first person. Not because the author is horrible but because there is a limit to what the MC can show you from their viewpoint. First person writing is very, very, limiting and can be butchered terribly if the author isn't skilled.

I love the Dead Witch Walking series by Kim Harrison and the Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell. Both do an excellent job of making their worlds come to life, but because they are written in first person you always feel like your missing part of the story. You can't see what the other characters are seeing. You can't get in the SC's head and feel their struggle. You can show all that through interaction but it takes practice. My advice is to use first person with caution. You'll work twice as hard to get the SC's solid as you will if you write third person.

What do you think about secondary characters?


  1. I'm used to seeing secondary characters as POV. Then again, it's as common in fantasy as it is in science fiction. A viewpoint does not equal a main character.

    That aside, I think it's great to have a temporarily more compelling SC than MC. Then we get to see what the MC does to steal back the show. :-)

    SC character sheets should be just as detailed as MC. They need history and motivation too. I don't think any MC would be strong and interesting enough to carry an entire book on their own.

    I'm currently adding a third viewpoint to my own book, as it felt unbalanced.

    *steps off the soap box that somehow appeared beneath her*

  2. he he he - You amuse me :o) I was up on that same soap-box earlier. I think sci-fi and fantasy writing is just a little bit different than writing in other genres. Things that don't work other places are a must-have for sci-fi. And things that you expect to see in literary, romance, and YA are the kiss of death at this end of the spectrum.

    I think there's such a sharp dichotomy between the people who love the classics and people who love sci-fi. It's not just the technology and themes it's the writing style that divides them.

  3. I totally agree with you, and this fits in PERFECTLY with something I was musing about last night/this morning.

    I'm rereading the Harry Potter series, and, love them or hate them, you can't deny they've been popular. I've been thinking as I've been reading about /why/, and last night, I reached nearly the same conclusion that you have drawn here - in the Harry Potter series, the secondary characters are all well-rounded, fleshed out, solidly motivated. Everyone acts as they do because that's how they would act, not because they'be been MADE to act that way (if that makes sense).

    I didn't think about it in terms of 'secondary' versus 'main' characters, but for me it just slotted in nicely with your post here :)

    There's something innately more compelling about a story where you never know who might end up being important, and where you know that everyone has their own stories :)

    Great post :)

  4. You're very good at explaining SCs. :)

    I think I'll start sketching out profiles for my secondary characters now...

  5. In HP - well lets just say I read the books FOR the SC's, not for Harry (Hermione, Ron, Weasley family....Harry...I don't like)

  6. Don't fret about the Secondary Characters on MSFV. It was drop the needle, and a lot of the scene and elements that set the reader up were missing. I had two pieces in, and both they couldn't figure out which was secondary.(They played well together) I always write multi pov, and yes it's Sci Fi Rom.
    First person is a tough call. It can get you inside the character's head faster than any other POV. You can really connect with the reader on an emotional level that is harder to do with third person. But it takes a lot of work and skill to make it work. If you're good at it, use it to your advantage, otherwise I agree to use caution.

    Strong secondary characters have personality. Do up a background sheet on all of your characters. You need the usual, hair, eyes, etc. etc. But also include details about what they do for a living. Likes, dislikes. A bit about their childhood. Were they an only child? Middle, youngest. Then take the elements and incorporate them into the character's personality. I have a spread sheet for all my characters. (But I don't do outlines) I even list bad habits and qwerky behavior. Try putting a profile on paper first, so when you get to a place where you say "How would this character react or what would he or she say", you know.