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.
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.