Let’s talk about second and third tier characters.

Here are some thoughts prompted by discussing a pal’s work in progress. This particular story is developing from the core outwards, by which I mean the central characters’ narratives are coming nicely into focus, with their personalities both being forged by events and shaping their reactions to events, driving the story on. All good so far, and this is an entirely valid way to write. Everyone’s process is different, after all.

What this does mean is that just at the moment, these secondary characters are purely serving their plot functions in their interactions with the central characters and events. Beyond that, there’s not much to distinguish them apart from their names. They’re certainly not fully rounded individuals in their own right. As for the tertiary characters, those people who come and go, to populate a novel’s world by providing atmosphere and context, they’re currently nameless placeholders. As I say, this is a work in progress.

Sorgrad & Sorgren by Mike Collins

So what are the next steps? For those secondary characters, let’s remember that all the same things have shaped them, which have shaped the people a story’s focused on. Where these secondary characters have lived, what they’ve done, what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned from their parents and their culture. All these things will determine their wants and needs and fears and bias, because everyone is the sum of their experiences, one way or another.

Now, you don’t have to put all this into the story – indeed, you won’t want to, because the focus on the main narrative will become unhelpfully blurred. But by knowing these things, the writer can get double or even triple value from such a character’s presence. Then these secondary characters won’t merely advance the plot, they’ll also show the reader more about this world, and may well show us facets of the central characters which we won’t get from the protagonist themselves.

An example? Hank Schrader, in Breaking Bad comes to mind for me. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the series, and I won’t spoil it for you here. All you need to know is this character’s role in that narrative is, first and foremost, functional. Because Hank’s a DEA agent, what we see him do gives the viewer the key counterpoint to the protagonist, Walter White’s story. We learn things about the drug trade and its complications, which Walter’s unaware of, foreshadowing possible outcomes and raising tensions. So far, so plot-structural.

But there’s so much more to Hank than this. He’s a man with hobbies, primarily home-brewing beer. In his established work environment, he’s astute and effective, but when he gets into unfamiliar territory, not so much. He masks his insecurities with bluff bravado, and politically incorrect jokes, but when a family crisis strikes, he does all he can to help, sometimes clumsily but always trying, even if that’s only by checking a water heater.

The key thing here is, the more three-dimensional and multifaceted Hank becomes, the more his involvement ties non-Walt-but-plot-crucial events into the main narrative through the viewers’ emotional investment in Hank as a person in his own right. We also see more facets of Walter White thanks to Hank, and not only directly through their interactions. When we see Hank interacting with Walt’s son, Flynn, there are some very revealing responses from Walt. All of which serves to broaden and enrich this fictional world.

So don’t sell secondary characters short. Use the same key elements that strengthen characterisation in those people who your story’s actually about. Think about all those old sayings about character. “You give yourself away every time you open your mouth.” What people say tells about us who they are. “Actions speak louder than words.” How they do things often tells us still more. “Do what I say, not what I do.” Contradictions can give still more clues to personality. Proverbs like these endure because they’re useful in life as well as in writing.

The same applies to third tier characters, to make them more than your space opera’s red-shirted Ensign Expendables or featureless arrow/sword/spear fodder in your sword and sorcery epic. And if they are going to die, making them real people becomes even more important. Because if someone’s fate doesn’t matter to the reader, then bluntly, it doesn’t count and those words on that page are a waste of everyone’s time. The challenge here is you’ll have even less time and space to give these tertiary people who come and go to further plot and atmosphere, never to be seen again. You must still avoid overburdening your story with irrelevant detail.

So how to make them memorable? Starting with their appearance can often help in making them distinctive. Though I don’t recommend staring at a blank screen until sheer desperation makes you introduce a one-legged red-head on a unicycle serving the drinks. Unless you’re writing a book where they’d fit right in, of course. If not, go and look for inspiration in visual references, on the Internet or in reference books. Don’t limit yourself to whatever historical period or technological scenario you’re working with. Look at portraits, photographic and painted, in magazines and newspaper articles.

Consider the common stereotypes for people in these all too common roles, from downtrodden maidservant to broad-shouldered starship captain and find ways to flip them into something new. Something that plays against a reader’s unconscious expectations will catch their attention, even in a character who’s only there for half a page. Look for the telling detail, in speech, in action, reaction or appearance that will lift this character up into the limelight just for a moment, to convince the reader that they’re more than a cardboard cut-out. Look for ways to use these necessary but otherwise mundane interactions between second and third tier characters to convey something that the principles in this story don’t yet know, to intrigue, or to worry your readers

A recent example for me is the crew of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy ship, The Donnager, in the TV series, The Expanse. Again, don’t worry if you haven’t seen it. What you need to know is that these characters are vivid in their personalities and distinctive in appearance. All their interactions, with each other just as much as with the story’s main characters, convinces the viewer of their military hierarchy, of their motivations, of their training and discipline. All of which makes the whole episode that involves them so much more grounded in plausible reality – even when this is SF set out in the Asteroid Belt.

That’s enough to be going on with for the moment. Feel free to flag up particularly effective instances of second and third tier characters in comments, from viewing or reading. I’ve cited examples from TV because more people are likely to be familiar with them, but there are just as many similarly effective instances to be found in written fiction.

And now that I’ve managed to focus on something other than our bloody General Election, maybe I’ll be able to get back to some writing of my own.

My take on the UK’s snap General Election – my only post about it because … headdesk

EU responses since Article 50 was triggered make it absolutely clear that Theresa May can’t have a Hard Brexit to satisfy UKIP and the Bigot Vote as well as single market access, keeping the customs union and a whole lot of other things vital to the UK economy.

NB I am not saying *all* Leave voters = Bigots. I have had enough discussions with those whose Referendum vote I disagree with but can respect as thoughtful people holding a considered view. Just so we’re clear on that.

Big business was firmly for staying in the EU. They will not stand for the loss of the UK’s financial sector, free movement for key staff etc and they are the Tory Party’s paymasters. Do not forget this.

If Theresa May wants to keep them happy, her current majority is far too small and vulnerable to Hard Brexit die-hards in the parliamentary Tory Party & selfish chancers like Boris, David Davis et al troublemaking for their own short term, personal gain.

Oh, and let’s not forget those 30 seats where Tory election spending illegalities could trigger by-elections and wipe out that majority.

An election now offers May the chance of getting a significantly increased majority by hoovering up the Bigot Vote before Brexit price rises and job losses etc really start to bite

As well as by benefitting from the current perception/media portrayal that Labour couldn’t win an arse-kicking contest with a one-legged man, with UKIP still a shambles & other parties starting from a point of having so few MPs – other than the SNP who can’t expand beyond Scotland.

If May gets an increased Tory majority, she can ram through a Brexit to satisfy the City & Big Business before Bigot Voters realise their dreams of Empire 2.0, closed borders and cultural purity etc simply won’t happen – and there’ll be sod all they can do about it.

With the added Tory Idealogue bonus of gaining the unfettered ability to now shaft the NHS, see themselves and their pals get rich off education & health care for profit, and to make hay with exploitative labour laws, tax breaks for the super-rich etc. etc.

So I’ll be doing all I can to stop this.

Not at a SF&F convention this weekend? You can still enjoy some genre chat and debate

Halice – Warrior Woman from the Tales of Einarinn

It’s a busy weekend for conventions, from the UK to Australia and many points in between. Well, if you happen to be at home, you can still enjoy some SF&F chat by listening to the ‘Breaking the Glass Slipper’ podcast, where I am discussing women warriors and fight scenes with the team. We had great fun, as you’ll easily be able to tell 🙂

While you’re there, do bookmark the podcast for regular listening.

Another discussion that’s going on in various places is the intricacy of writing effective characters in your fiction. Aliette de Bodard is on a blog tour at the moment, what with her new novel, The House of Binding Thorns just out. Do take a look at what she’s saying here and elsewhere.

Beyond the Cliché Shelf: Making Characters Vibrant and Unexpected – at Skiffy and Fanty

The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community, and Erasure – at Uncanny Magazine

Likeable characters, interesting characters, and the frankly terrible ones – on her own website.

This is also Women in SF&F Month over at Fantasy Cafe. There’s already an array of interesting posts by authors worth looking out for, plus pertinent observations from fans and reviewers, and more to come. Enjoy!

Update and links and daffodils

I was quite surprised when a pal pointed out it’s been a month since my last blogpost. Really? Surely it’s only been couple of weeks of doing all sorts of other things? Oh, yes…

I’m working on revising one book while continuing to send out another to agents. I’ve read Cory Doctorow’s “Walkaway” and written a review of that for Interzone. I’m writing a guest post for Marie Brennan and I spent a lovely hour and more chatting with the women of the “Breaking the Glass Slipper” podcast, and that will be available shortly. I checked over the edits for a paper I’ve written for Luna Press’s forthcoming book “Gender identity and sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction: do we have a problem?”

Plus there’s been a whole load of domestic and business administrative stuff hereabouts, none of which would make for remotely interesting blogpost material but which gets incredibly time consuming.

Best of all, we’ve been on holiday, and that was great. We headed for the Lake District, and got a very different view of the landscapes, compared to our previous visits, with the trees not yet in leaf and the undergrowth yet to start burgeoning. We also saw lots of sheep and the early lambs and the Husband became fascinated by just how different the shapes of sheep’s heads can be, when you start comparing breed with breed. We visited Penrith, and Acorn Bank, and Holker Hall, and the Lakeland Motor Museum which is highly recommended for those with even a passing interest in cars, motorbikes and cycles. The collection is very well displayed and has some real rarities and oddities. And yes, there are an awful lot of daffodils in the Lake District if you’re there at the right season.

By way of light relief, I’ve watched Marvel’s “Iron Fist” on Netflix… well, let’s just say that I am left with one question above all others… Who was that seeker of ancient truth and wisdom, who travelled all the way to the high Himalayas, and taught the monks of K’un Lun to speak English with a broad Stockport accent? That’s a story I’d really like to see told…

While we were on holiday we watched the first season of “The Expanse” in the evenings, and that was very good indeed. As are the books, though now I have to decide if I want to read on after the first three that I’ve already enjoyed, or wait, so I’m not spoiled for the TV adaptation plot..

Meantime, the Internet has been offering a whole lot of interesting things, so here are some links to pieces that have particularly caught my eye.

Six Things I Learned in My First Month of Using Patreon – Tobias Buckell. Thought-provoking reading for those who think crowd-funding can support the arts.

Mary Beard has a few things to say about the shared metaphors used to describe female access to power. And there’s a transcript if you prefer reading to watching the video.

An article about Josephine Tey “60 years after her death, the greatest mystery Tey created still may be herself”

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a feminist parable for everyone – including me” by Anthony Stewart Head (Twenty years ago?! I feel old…)

Martha Wells highlights a great selection of new books on her blog.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that I’m linking to Martha’s blog on Dreamwidth rather than Live Journal. In common with almost everyone else I know, I’m not about to sign up to LJ’s new Terms of Service. There are some big red flags and one thing I know about contracts is never sign anything with clauses for concern in the hope that ‘but it’ll never happen, right?’ In any case, this website and blog there have been my primary web presence for a good few years now. So I will be dusting off the Dreamwidth account I set up the last time it looked as though LJ was going down the drain, and looking to rebuild as much of my former LJ circle of friends over there, to continue keeping in touch. I am (unsurprisingly) JeMcK if you want to find me. I’ll be shutting down my LJ account some time later this month when I have the spare time to do the admin etc.

And lastly, to be going on with, some daffodils!