Which is obvious, I suppose. It’s a thought that was sparked by this post, on supporting casts, by Jennifer at WriterJenn.
Jennifer says, among other things:
“Subplots and side characters can be fascinating. Usually I enjoy the time I spend with the supporting cast. So I’ve been trying to figure out why I didn’t like it in this case. For one thing, it seemed to come at the expense of the main story line. There were important questions dangling, and instead of pursuing them, the author would pull back and spend all kinds of time in the side characters’ backstories. In addition, the side characters’ stories didn’t really enhance the main theme…”
The emphasis is mine.
I love great supporting characters. Like, Debbie and her family in STILL LIFE — remember I mentioned them specifically? And why did these secondary characters work so well? Well, because
a) We see all secondary characters from Melanie’s pov, so obviously this is going to keep the story feeling cohesive — one plus of a first-person pov.
b) The stuff that happens at that dinner party is crucial to plot and theme development.
c) And yes, the characters themselves are engaging — can’t forget about that.
One plus of writing a short book is that you are forced to keep your plot tight and your story elements restricted — you can’t go everywhere in your world and do everything. And however many secondary characters you have, they have to support the main character and everything they do has to support the plot. My strong guess is that the book that didn’t work for Jennifer was a longer book, and not YA (she doesn’t give the title).
Here are the books I’ve read this month:
The Hollow City — Dan Wells
Shape of Desire and Still Life with Shapeshifter — Sharon Shinn
Fool’s Run — McKillip
Paladin — Cherryh
The Girl Who Chased the Moon — Sarah Addison Allen
The Raksura trilogy — Martha Wells
And some of these books provide an interesting contrast when it comes to the number and use of secondary characters.
The Hollow City . . . doesn’t really have any secondary characters. Not really. Not exactly. I mean, very minor secondary characters, yes, plus the bad guy, plus the protagonist, plus his delusions. It’s a very weird book, as you may gather. I mean, at the end the protagonist kind of defeats the bad guy and you stand up and cheer: Yay? Because is that a happy ending or not? If you read this, let me know what you think. I’m not sure what I think.
And in Paladin? There almost aren’t any secondary characters in that one, either. It’s Shoka and Taizu and that’s it. Oh, I take it back, there’s also the horse, Jiro. He’s as close as it comes to a secondary character for that whole book. I think this tight focus on the two main characters is what gives the story such intensity.
And then in Shape of Desire and Still Life we get excellent secondary characters, and there’s no doubt which ones are the protagonists and which ones are secondary, because both books are in first-person-present. In these books, the secondary characters are perceived solely through the eyes of the protagonist and they’re there to drive the main plotline, which is (usually) the only plotline. Of course this sucks us into the protagonist’s life and makes us identify with her, which is probably why so much YA is written in the first person.
Which is different from Fool’s Run, say, because there are a heap o’ characters in that one, but it would be hard to pick out one main character. And in The Girl Who Chased the Moon, though it’s so different, in this one way it’s quite similar to Fool’s Run. In both books, there are several pov characters and a whole cast of very important secondary characters. And that gives a whole different feel to the book, naturally, since you aren’t allowed to focus tightly on just one character. It makes you first sympathize with one and then a different character, and then a third; and it gives you a nudge away from the characters and encourages a broader attention on the world the author’s built.
Or so it seems to me. Thoughts?