Saturday, October 10, 2015

Secondary Characters

I moderated an interesting panel discussion at Archon 39 this past weekend. "When Your Secondary Characters Demand Their Own Stories", with panelists Jacqueline Carey, Adrian J. Matthews, Cindy A. Matthews, Henry Melton and myself, started with examples of just those times. At first, these seemed to point out the differences between "plotters" - those who plot out their stories beforehand - and "pantsers" - those who write by the seat of their pants with no initial plan. "Pantsers" had characters who seemed to wander into a story while "plotters" didn't allow their characters to stray outside their predetermined roles.

But, as the discussion went on, it turned out that there wasn't that much difference between the two sliding scales of writing. What mattered was the character. Some background characters could appear, speak their lines or carry a spear, and vanish in the next paragraph. A secondary character could stay in the shadow of the main character, never moving out of the role of the main character's best friend or supporting team. But then there are those, that due to either being so well developed or with such an interesting backstory, that somehow catch enough interest (either the author's or readers') that people demand that more be told. Cindy Matthews found it happened with just one throwaway line spoken by a character. Henry Melton noticed one secondary character had become so interesting that he realized that the story should be about that character, the father of the main character, rather than the son.

Several of my short stories in Agents and Adepts are due to my own "secondary characters want their own story" issue. While looking for a publisher for my first book, The Crystal Throne, I found my Fleet Ones, a race of talking horselike beings in that book, rather pushy in that regard. Renw's story of how he teamed up with an elf to become a scout was something I had to explore, as well as how Elin left the herd to learn magic. Elin even pushed his way into Talking to Trees.

Is this something you can plan? The panelists were divided on that. In order to make a story interesting, you have to have interesting characters. One way to make a character interesting is to mention details, such as what the character likes or dislikes, mannerisms, etc. The more details we know about the character, the better. The problem comes with knowing so much about the character that she or he takes over the story. The panelists did agree that, if a character doesn't fit a story, no matter how interesting he or she is, for the sake of the story it might be best to move him or her to another file to save for another story.

Patricia Wrede covers this dilemma well in her tips on writing about secondary characters.

What secondary characters are you aware of that have gone on to their stories?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I've never had a secondary character take over, but some readers have mentioned they like a certain character best in a story and I've been considering writing a new story about a boy that's in one of mine. He's one of my favorites. Might happen. Might not. Thanks for the information.