Today I had a coffee date with my friend Tami. She’s playing First Reader for one of my works in progress. I was busy bouncing ideas off her for the story’s conclusion and we started talking about foes, villains, and antiheroes. One thing I like to keep in mind as a writer is that very few people are bad just for the sake of being bad. They usually do what they do because they find it right or necessary. Sometimes they take a perverse sort of glee in what they do or even claim they love to be bad–think antihero Lestat in Anne Rice’s work–but most often they’re just people caught up in circumstances. Whether those circumstances are of their own making or not… well, there’s a major plot point just waiting for you to write it.
The other discussion we had was about minor characters. I mentioned to her that no character knows he or she is minor. They’re all the stars of their own shows, as it were. It’s just that when we as authors pick a main character, we become tied to telling the story through that character’s eyes. Exceptions are omniscient narrators or someone like George RR Martin, who uses multiple POVs in one of the most effective ways I’ve seen in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’m not always a big fan of multiple or alternating POVs. It has to be done the right way to keep the story focused. In a world as big as his, it’s practically a requirement. There are so many stars in that particular universe that it seems a very crowded place, which is appropriate for that world. I don’t love all of his people, but I’m fond of many of them and the way the choose to narrate pieces of the whole story.
I know a great deal about my major minor characters (oxymoronic, isn’t it?). I know where they come from and where they want to go. I need to know enough about their motivations, wishes, and dreams to imbue them with realism. Sometimes they battle to crowd out my main character. Sometimes they threaten to take over. Sometimes they become the most interesting people in the book. Sometimes, if they’re intriguing enough, they get their own book. (I see how series happen now!) I’m such a huge fan of characterization that I feel no effort is wasted in fleshing out these non-headliners. It’s some of the best fun I have with fiction.
To recap: bad characters generally don’t believe they’re in the wrong but when they do stir our sympathy they become antiheroes, and minor characters all have their own lives to live. This last point, I believe, is why fanfiction is so popular. It allows those who write it to fill in the gaps left behind for those in walk-on roles.
I’m eager to hear your thoughts, and also to thank Deborah Layne, publisher of the Polyphony series, who started me thinking about all of this years ago. Thanks, Deb!
For no good reason other than the fact I find it so memorable and so richly characterized, I leave you with my favorite quote from a favorite (arguably minor) character:
“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a pair. People will insist on giving me books.”