Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Secondary characters are important

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?

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2 Comments Secondary characters are important

  1. Elaine T

    I read THE HOLLOW CITY by Wells a while back. It was interesting. I think it was a positive ending, but not happy. You’re read DWJ’s HOMEWARD BOUNDERS, yes? it was that kind of ending. The hero/protaganist does what needs to be done, but there are consequences.

    i’ve also been thinking about characters, having noticed that Sarah Addison Allen doesn’t tend to focus on one; rather she tells several people’s stories in one short book. What I’ve noticed in her work is the synergy – one person has this problem/need, another has this one, and a third has… And all those issues are worked together by the author to bring all into a more positive life by the end, the solution to one causes or influences events so as to cause a cascading effect of good resolutions for the characters. In Allen’s GIRL-MOON, Julia’s kindness to Emma (?) shifts her attitude to Sawyer, and the grandfather has to change, etc. It’s different from how, say Alma Alexander, handled her ‘ten characters in search of a plot’ novel (I think it was ten, might have been seven) SECRETS OF JIN SHEI where a few issues had synergy but there were also several that only obviously affected a couple of the characters. Or so I remember it. (it’s been a while.)

    Then there’s Kay’s UNDER HEAVEN which has a large cast, and one main character. The point (?) of that one seems to be the protaganist’s effect on everyone else. Kay also likes to give short life stories, even for the secondary or tertiary characters, which i appreciate as fleshing out the world, the story, and highlighting contrasts with more prominent characters.

  2. Rachel

    Emily, and yes. It’s like Allen sets about two plot arcs in motion, but those two arcs move all the characters, and all of them then move into a minuet that leaves them all in a better place at the end. It’s very beautiful plotting. I wonder how long it takes her to write one of her little books? And whether she’s got the whole thing in her head when she starts?

    I have JIN-SHEI down on my TBR pile . . . along with so much else.

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