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.

 

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6 thoughts on “For SF&F Writers. Building Believable Worlds Part 3: Secondary Characters

  1. Pingback: For SF&F Writers. Building Believable Worlds Part 3: Secondary Characters — Notes From The Slush Pile – All About Writing

  2. Thank God, I found this and read this. I am currently writing the sequel to my last novel and have many, secondary characters supporting my protagonist. This subject has been a main concern and did not want them to be merely ‘window-dressing’ or used as ‘fillers’. I am continualy asking myself, ‘Should I add more detail to their motivations? Who they were, who they are and what are they becoming…? Am I providing the reader with ‘TMI’?’

    Your insight has provided me great inspiration and thought for additional depth.

    Thank-you,
    Mike Giesinger

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

  4. I read your blog a couple of times; I do agree with you. Don’t write your characters one or two dimensions, as that does not make sense. If you do need to use the cliche then expand their story to a ‘real’ person, as Shrek say ‘I am like an onion.’

  5. But sometimes giving them too much dimension or motivation misleads the reader into expecting bigger things from them. No need to flesh them out more than necessary. Some are 2D for a reason, some really are just ‘scenery’. Make them believable and create organic interactions, sure. But I feel delving too deep can distract the reader from the desired path.

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