On the perils of rounding out your secondary characters TOO well

So, I’m about halfway through STELES OF THE SKY.


The best part of this series: The details in the worldbuilding! Elizabeth Bear did an incredible job with this. Like, Temur’s people are based on Tibetan steppe nomads, and the horses are clearly Akhal-Tekes, with not only the metallic sheen to the coat, but the sparse mane and flat musculature; and the dogs are just as obviously Tibetan mastiffs, with the correct matted coat for working mastiffs. I know I’ve mentioned this part of the worldbuilding before. But also:

a) I’ve seen lots of mages control fire in fantasy novels, but I’ve never seen any author correctly refer to combustion as a dehydration reaction that produces water. Wow. I mean, Bear didn’t actually lay out the chemical equations, but she came close.

b) I’ve seen lots of fantasy novels where people go hunting and bring back game, but I’ve never seen anybody go hunting and bring back water chevrotains (mouse deer), correctly described and placed in the right ecosystem. She did everything but refer to the species as Hyemoschus aquaticus.

c) When the cream-colored foal is born, Temur explains correctly that it’s impossible to get that color of foal out of a bay mare. This is true because that color is almost certainly produced by the chinchilla dilute and you would need it to be homozygous, but the bay mother can’t have that allele or she wouldn’t be bay (she would be buckskin). Temur explains exactly what crosses could produce “ghost” — by which he means what we could call cream. Correct color genetics in a fantasy novel! It’s amazing.

What ought to be the best part of this series, though: the characters. And here we stumble into a problem that I never realized existed, or even could exist. The secondary characters are TOO well developed. Let me lay out what’s happening to me as a reader while I work my way through this series:

1. Yangchen, now Dowanger Empress Yangchen, accidentally let a really horrible plague of demons invade her country because of her machinations to remove her mother-in-law, a crime for which she framed her junior husband even though it meant he would be burned alive. All this is terrible. She did terrible things, and the results are even worse than I’ve indicated. Now she is horrified by what has happened and she is also coming to believe that she was probably wrong to murder her mother-in-law in the first place, even if that hadn’t led to the rest of this. She is trying harder and harder to be a good empress. She is actually intrinsically kind — amazing, given her early history in this series, but it’s true. I’m really pulling for her to somehow overcome the dire obstacles she and her people face, grow into herself, become a great Empress, and hopefully rear her son to be a way, way better Emperor than his father. YANGCHEN SHOULD BE THE MAIN CHARACTER. I would totally read a book that focused just on her. It is jarring to switch out of her pov.

2. Ummuhan, a female slave-poet in the Caliphate of Uthman, has a tough row to hoe. As a woman, she has to pull strings from the background, and exactly what she’s trying to achieve is not perfectly clear. Her actions, too, have led to horrible things — she’s riding a tiger, and she’s not in control of it, and it’s hard to say how things are going to work out for her or for the Caliphate now that she’s helped a pretty evil guy usurp power. Oh, btw, Ummuhan is also a secret priestess. Women, horribly restricted in the Caliphate, do not get to be priestesses, which is why this is secret. Exactly what the secret order of priestesses entails is not clear, because we just do not get enough time with Ummahan to find this out. UMMAHAN SHOULD BE THE MAIN CHARACTER. I would totally read a book that focused just on her. It is jarring to switch out of her pov.

3. Tsering is a wizard who never gained power. She knows everything about the theory of magic, but she has no magic of her own. She fights against envy in order to be as useful as possible to her order of wizards and to her people. She has a tragic backstory, about which we know practically nothing; and a very promising character arc. TSERING SHOULD BE THE MAIN CHARACTER. I would totally read a book that focused just on her. It is jarring to switch out of her pov.

4. Hsiung is a mendicant monk who years ago snuck a look at one or some forbidden texts. The texts, from the ruined city of Erem, blister your mouth when you read them out loud. Just reading them makes you go blind. The magic in them contaminates you permanently in various ways. So Hsiung has been dealing with all that. In order to protect his order of monks and also in order to avoid punishment for reading the forbidden books, he left the monastery. In order to protect everyone from the magic that contaminates him, he took a vow of silence. Now, in the middle of the third book, he has finally returned to the monastery to lay out the story of what’s been happening to his masters and seek their help, no matter what it costs him personally. Hsiung’s story has hit several of my favorite tropes and wham! He is now one of my favorite characters in the story; his story is one of the most compelling, if not *the* most compelling. HSIUNG SHOULD BE THE MAIN CHARACTER. I would *totally* read a book that focused just on him. I really resented switching out of his pov.

Every single character could fall into this category of should-be-the-main-character. I’m not personally too keen on Hrahima, the tiger woman, because for me she is a bit much-of-a-muchness. Hrahima, the super-tiger! But the glimpses of her backstory that we get are interesting and I’m sure she appeals to many readers. Also, I flinch from Edene’s pov, not because she isn’t sympathetic, but because she’s being used by the bad guy, she doesn’t know it, and I feel terrible for her. I hope she turns in al-Sepher’s hand at the end and saves the day. But to me, it looks like her story is inevitably going to end in tragedy.

Anyway, rounding out all the “secondary” characters to this extent is definitely contributing to the difficulty in focusing on what started out as the “main” storyline, that of Temur and Samarkar. My response as a reader is to become more emotionally distant from all the storylines in order to avoid being jarred as much.

My response as a writer, btw, is to consider picking up one or more of the secondary characters, revamping all the details while keeping intact some part of the central heart of the character and his or her basic dilemma, and writing a book where that character gets to be central. If you someday read a book of mine in which the main character’s story involves stealing forbidden knowledge and eventually returning to his home to make amends and seek help in saving the world, well, you’ll know where that came from.

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10 thoughts on “On the perils of rounding out your secondary characters TOO well”

  1. This reminds me of things Patricia Wrede & Marie Brennan have both remarked on, that each character has their own stories, so by giving them a POV you’re delving into their stories, and so the subplots proliferate, the story sprawls out of control and the reader (probably) loses interest. OTOH, maybe the writer is Robert Jordan or GRRM and keeps enough readers to laugh all the way to the bank.

    I’ve certainly noticed a tendency to lose interest and only follow one thread of a long multi-POV story where I’ve made a connection with one character or set thereof, but not with the others. These days, though, I mostly don’t pick up books like that.

    I don’t know how to flesh out secondary characters without running into this problem, unless it would be by not giving them POV but fleshing them out by the main characters’ observations. Since I wasn’t that interested in #1 of this series (I don’t remember if I even finished it, but think not) I don’t know if that’s possible. IIRC the POVs were to cover various stuff happening rather far afield from Temur and Samarkar. If that is correct, do readers REALLY need to see it all? I know I’ve read a couple entries in long running series where my take was ‘the author may have needed to write this – but I didn’t need to read it.”

    the other angle would be mastering omniscent and dropping in on the far afield stuff briefly, while keeping the main focus on temur & friend. Rather like the way Wurts does in her Light & Shadow epic. Just a couple paragraphs at the end of a chapter or a section letting us know what’s happening off the main stage. It does eventually tie in, but the focus isn’t there.

  2. Hi, Elaine —

    I remember Marie Brennen going into that while taking apart The Wheel of Time. She sure persuaded me not to bother reading that series, because the proliferating pov definitely sound like they would frustrate me as a reader.

    While I could see omniscient working, I do think that omniscient is hard to pull off and especially hard to manage without pulling focus off the main character. I think mostly omniscient works better when the author keeps the focus mainly on just one or a few characters, with just glimmers of insight into the heads of other characters, as in Judith Riley’s historical fantasy.

    Honestly, I think there are only two fundamental ways to handle this. First, simply don’t give the pov of the secondary characters, develop them from the main characters’ pov, and if the reader doesn’t find out something, too bad. Find a different way to show the reader things that are important. That’s the one you mention.

    Second, expand the series and focus on just a few pov characters in each book, but different ones. I imagine that would be hard to pull off, too, especially if you are trying to work out one overall story arc for the series. But I can’t think of any other way to REALLY bring out the great secondary characters without losing focus. Naturally, this will annoy readers who pick up Book III and find that their favorite character is not a pov character in that one. Alas, I don’t see a way to avoid that.

    But it would definitely help just to stick with one character for thirty pages at a time instead of three paragraphs.

  3. Or there’s the Megan Whalen Turner/Sarah Rees Brennan approach, which is to switch pov characters between books in a series, but remain consistent within the book. I really like both of those series and think that technique works pretty well as a way to give different insights than might otherwise be possible. But I know other readers have disagreed. And of course in both of those cases, you could argue that the protagonists don’t change, just that we’re seeing them filtered through different lenses.

  4. Never read these, and this is an interesting problem. Having too many POVs is a fairly common problem (it’s one of the things that’s scared me off Jordan and GRRM, although I can’t say it’s the most important). Having them all be too compelling– I don’t think I’ve ever run into that.

    Spinning off Elaine’s comment, it sounds like the problem isn’t just that they’re developed as characters, but that they all have strong personal plot arcs in which they’re central. If they were iconic characters who were interesting to read but didn’t have much personal development, would the same issue appear?

  5. Bear’s use of multiple POVs didn’t bother me nearly as much. The biggest weakness of multiple POV books is that the plot can grind to a halt. Bear did not fall into this trap. I actually loved seeing such well-developed secondary characters.

  6. Mary Ann, I am SO with you about detesting villain points of view. I can’t think of a single time I have liked that. I would add David Weber to the list for spending time in the villain pov where I DON’T CARE what they’re up to and don’t think the reader needs to know.

    I don’t mind multiple points of view . . . obviously . . . but I do mind never getting a chance to settle into any one of them.

    Maureen, yes, I was impressed at how well MWT brought off that series while switching pov and from third to first person. I missed Gen as the pov protagonist, but on the other hand he works really well seen through the eyes of other characters, too.

    Craig, I agree, it’s probably really how strong all the plot arcs are rather than “too developed” as such.

    Pete, I agree about the plot moving ahead; to me, Bear seemed to have a very good handle on where she was going and how she was going to get there and didn’t let things stutter to a halt. I have to add, I was relieved at where Edene ended up, too.

  7. Now I’m reading Bear’s Karen Memery. I now think she is playing games, a little. Epic Fantasy, with multiple POVs: let me show you how it’s done. Steampunk, with first person narrative: let me show you how it’s done. She’s making Platonic Ideals of various genres…some of which really need shaking up. Your point that the secondary characters are TOO GOOD is well taken.
    Karen Memery is the best written steampunk I’ve read since Kage Baker died.

  8. The Platonic Ideals I mean here are the utterly cliche attributes of a genre. The magical companion animal. The Evil Overlord. The Prostitute with a Heart of Gold.

  9. That sounds like fun . . . but I’m glad to be warned ahead of time. This way I should enjoy Spotting The Trope instead of finding the clich├ęs annoying.

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