For SF&F Writers. Building Believable Worlds Part 3: Secondary Characters

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Every drama needs a supporting cast. In my time as a First Reader with Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, I’ve come across far too many stories that fail to give sufficient thought or depth to secondary characters. An unfortunate, but easy mistake to make when writing short fiction, particularly in the first person. The writer crafts a heroic protagonist viewpoint character that’s too engrossed in their own actions and opinions. Secondary characters are relegated to the role of scenery, or the bearers of a brief expository dialogue that sets the protagonist off on their adventure. Worse still, they can be enemies without motivation or explanation. I’ll save my views on the various types of primary antagonist for a future post, but as far as minor characters go I’ve encountered dozens of examples of poorly handled friends, sidekicks, spouses, and other types of acquaintances.

For convenience’s sake, I’m just going to offer all of you a quick list of things I encounter in secondary characters that earn a story an immediate black mark in my book.

  • Wise old mentor who imparts much needed knowledge and/or skills upon protagonist with absolutely no explanation of how they obtained said knowledge/skills
  • Character who suddenly becomes evil/antagonistic for no reason
  • Loving spouse introduced as such and given no other role in the story other than being the wife or husband of the protagonist
  • Easily thwarted minor antagonist placed in protagonist’s way early on just to establish them as a badass
  • Attractive but pointless character inserted as a romantic interest solely for the reasons of having a romantic interest. This one usually comes with a laughably thin justification for the character’s presence in the story.
  • Awful racist depictions of POC secondary characters. Yes, I get them in the slush pile. Please make them stop.

I get it. Populating an entire fictional universe is hard. I don’t expect the writer to spend the time and effort on giving the life’s story, motivations, and favourite colour of every secondary character in every short story. That said, if you as a writer are bothering to create a character, even a minor one, at least flesh them out a bit. A well placed, well crafted sentence or three at various points in their interaction with the protagonist is usually enough to make the reader view them as a more complete person beyond that interaction. Even if they only got a few lines of dialogue in before they met their untimely end, inspiring the hero to go off on their journey.

In speculative fiction we have another problem. Its tempting for the author to cheat a bit. Have the protagonist be a human among aliens, robots, dwarves, elves, etc and have them all just do their own thing while the hero does theirs. The automatic “othering” here means very little explanation required as to their motivations and interactions with the protagonist. They’re aliens, they do alien things. Attack earth, fight other aliens, abduct Mulder’s sister for reasons I’m still not quite clear on after binging all nine seasons of The X-Files on Netflix, whatever. It’s a little lazy, but dressing up mysterious non-human background characters doing mysterious things for non-human reasons, to be explained (or not) later, has long been a staple of speculative genres. I’m not advocating this over actual storytelling, but if it isn’t too ham-handed, keeps the plot moving, and gets you the writer to the point where you say what you’re trying to say, then I’m not going to judge too harshly. The rest of the story had just better be damn good.

Reading all of this back to myself as I get ready to hit publish, it seems like a lot to take in. Maybe I’m making this unnecessarily complicated. The level of detail an author wants to put into any aspect of their world-building, secondary characters included, is up to them. Just make sure the interactions between your characters feel organic, and that they come off as real, three-dimensional beings, not simply devices. Sometimes, less is more.