I’ve got a bit of a treat today with a guest post from Marc Turner, the author of When the Heavens Fall, talking about secondary character. Enjoy!
One of the real pleasures of writing for me is creating secondary characters. By “secondary” I mean a character who is not a point-of-view character, but who is more than just a walk-on. So what’s so enjoyable about writing them? Partly I think it’s that you have more freedom to paint them in really colourful strokes. Take, for instance, the character of Friendly in Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. Friendly is described on the cover as a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers, and “obsessed” is certainly the word. There’s a moment in the book when he gets thrown down some steps, “and the worst of it was he couldn’t even count them”. He’s a hugely entertaining character to read about, but I’m not sure I’d want to spend a whole book inside his head. There are some traits, I think, that are interesting in moderation, but if used to excess could soon become wearisome.
Having said that you have more freedom to write secondary characters, there is one aspect to them that I think you cannot dispense with. For me, a secondary character’s main purpose is to teach the reader something about the main character. How? Sometimes just by being around them. The way the main character responds to what a secondary character does and says will tell you a lot about that main character. I always look to create a secondary character that is different from the main character in one or more significant ways, because those differences create opportunities for conflict, and conflict creates drama.
Consider Jaime and Brienne in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. Jaime is a decidedly unsympathetic character in the first two books, but he becomes a more interesting character in book three, A Storm Of Swords, when he journeys with Brienne to King’s Landing. Brienne is everything Jaime is not: honest, trustworthy, honourable. At the start of their journey they loathe each other, but they come to share a mutual self-respect. I would argue it is Brienne’s presence, and not just the loss of Jaime’s hand, that is the catalyst for the positive developments in Jaime’s character. Imagine if instead it had been Cersei, or Tywin, or even Tyrion who had been with him on the journey. Do you think he would have changed in the same manner? In this way, Martin’s choice of secondary character is critical to Jaime’s story.
My debut, When the Heavens Fall, has four viewpoint characters. Each has a companion without whom their story would not be the same. One of those viewpoint characters is a priestess, Romany, who serves a goddess called the Spider. Of all the sections in the book, the ones containing their conversations were among the most enjoyable to write. Romany begins the story as a hedonistic and privileged sort, and the Spider never passes up an opportunity to tease her about it. Their very first exchange sets the tone for their relationship. The goddess has called on Romany at her temple and finds the place has changed since her last visit following a raid by one of Romany’s enemies. In particular, the priestess has added a bathing pool to her personal quarters. Romany explains:
“Time has not stood still since you last graced us with your presence, my Lady. You are aware the temple was attacked earlier this year?”
“Someone broke in and built you a bathhouse?”
To the Spider, everything in life is a game, and people merely the pieces she manipulates to play it. At first Romany shares her view, but during the course of the book she gets to see the effects that her actions have on others. The Spider becomes the standard by which Romany’s growth can be measured. For whilst the goddess remains steadfastly ruthless (in a charming sort of way), by the end of the book Romany must choose whether to risk her life in order to undo some of the damage she has caused, even if that means challenging her goddess’s instructions.
Parolla is another of the viewpoint characters in When the Heavens Fall. Very little is revealed about her at the start of the book, save that she seeks a confrontation with Shroud, the Lord of the Dead, in order to settle an old debt. Parolla’s parentage gives her abilities that make her dangerous company to keep. Because of her background she is slow to trust others, and it takes a very particular sort of secondary character to get her to open up. Enter Tumbal, an earnest and inquisitive spirit.
“Tell me of yourself,” [Parolla said]. “You are a warrior?”
“No, my Lady. I am a scholar—an engineer by trade.”
“What did you build?”
“Cities. Well, dwellings, if truth be told. And only for a time, at that.” Tumbal looked at his feet. “Few of my constructions stood the test of time. When demand for my services diminished, I decided to become an inventor.”
“And what did you discover, sirrah?”
“Only that I was less than accomplished in that calling also.”
Tumbal does not take himself seriously, and his example encourages Parolla to do likewise. As the story advances, and Parolla’s inner demons begin to consume her, Tumbal becomes the person Parolla clings to as she tries to resist her darker impulses. Without him there, her story would have followed a very different path.
In the case of both Romany and Parolla, the secondary characters are essential components of their story. Yes, secondary characters need to stand on their own – they need to be interesting and compelling – but ultimately the story belongs to the viewpoint character(s), and the secondary characters need to service that story else they are not doing their job. In the worst case scenario, the reader might even end up unsure as to whose story it is. If I’m writing and I feel that one of my minor characters is becoming more interesting than a main character, that’s a sign that the main character needs more work.
So who are your favourite secondary characters, and why? I’d be interested to hear, so feel free to leave a comment below.
Marc Turner was born in Canada, but grew up in England. His first novel, When the Heavens Fall, is an epic fantasy published by Tor in the US and Titan in the UK. You can see a video trailer for the book here and read a short story set in the world of the novel here. The short story has also been narrated by Emma Newman, and you can listen to it free here. Marc can be found on Twitter at @MarcJTurner and at his website