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Terrible Tips Tuesday: When Secondary Characters Attack

June 1, 2010

In the very first edition of Terrible Tips I wrote about the pitfalls of writing sequels.  Mostly I was addressing the problem of painting yourself in the corner and not having anywhere to go for the next story in the series.  Sometimes the inverse can be true as well in that you have too much going on for the sequels.

This is the problem with the story I’ve been working on now, They Stood Up for Love, Tales of the Scarlet Knight, Volume 5–how’s that for a memorable title?  When I started out, I expected it’d be kind of short, maybe 250-300 pages.  It ended at over 400 pages or 131,000 words, which made it the second longest thing I ever wrote.  This isn’t because of my story arc;  the problem is that I’ve developed an overabundance of secondary characters.

In the second Terrible Tips I talked about how to downsize characters.  That works pretty well for the first book in the series.  The problem as you get to 4, 5, 8 books in a series is that you can’t do that very easily.  For obvious reasons you can’t combine characters who already exist–although I’ve done enough weird shit in this series that I might try it–so all you can do is kill them off.  Which I’ve already done.  Since the series started I’ve killed our hero Emma Earl’s boss, her aunt, her mentor, her best friend’s fiancee, and her weird friend Marie.  Still I find that my stories are increasingly becoming ensemble pieces instead of just focusing on Emma, her sidekick best friend, and whoever the villain would be.

This is because as the series goes on, the secondary characters who started life essentially as props, became actual characters with lives of their own.  It wasn’t something I consciously willed to happen, more like something that happened organically as things rolled along.

The best example in the series is that I introduced two old ladies whom Emma meets when she’s shopping for a formal dress.  It turns out the old ladies are witches who’ve lived for the last 500 years or so and help protect the magic armor Emma finds to become the superhero the Scarlet Knight.  One witch is named Agnes Chiostro and the other Sylvia Joubert–though they’re actually sisters with Agnes being the older one.

Now when things started, Agnes didn’t even have a first name and Sylvia didn’t have a last name.  Agnes was intended to be Emma’s adviser on magic stuff and Sylvia sort of her Q/Lucius Fox who would help her out with weapons or other gadgets.  They had really basic personalities–Agnes being the nice grandmotherly one and Sylvia being more of a gruff loner.  I gave them only a little bit of backstory in that Agnes was once married and Sylvia deals weapons as a sideline business.  That was it.

They weren’t featured too heavily in the second story, but then things started to snowball in the third one.  At the end Sylvia loses her left hand in a battle with an evil goddess, but otherwise didn’t change a lot.  At the end I had one of my brainstorms where I decided for whatever reason that Agnes has a sort of mid-mid-mid-life crisis when she’s nearly killed in the same battle and decides to make herself look young and hot.  That in turn set things in motion for the fourth story, where she meets a boy–and then a girl.  (It’d take too long to explain that sequence of events.)  This in turn makes Sylvia jealous and she decides to make herself young and hot and finds her own boyfriend.

Now in the fifth book things are really spinning out of control as I promoted Sylvia to a reluctant villain.  The reason the thing is going so damned long is that I’ve spent dozens of pages flashing back to the late 18th and early/mid 19th Centuries to tell the story of Agnes meeting her husband, who in turn has a covert affair with Sylvia, who in turn secretly gives birth to Agnes’ husband’s child, which she gives up for adoption, and who eventually is the great-to-however-many-times-grandmother of the book’s primary villain.  So not only are we greatly expanding Sylvia’s story, but in turn it expands Agnes’ as well.

The gist of all this is that in the first story the characters were assigned a fairly small role.  Now as the series grinds on, their roles have become expanded, and with that the characters themselves expand, developing more in-depth personalities and backstories.  That means in turn they take pages away from focusing on our hero.

Is that a bad thing?  Not entirely.  I mean by the fifth book we already know Emma Earl’s history.  (Which is sort of a combination of Batman/Spider-Man’s history.)  There’s really not anything new we can add to her backstory or her personality at this point.  That’s all been pretty much set in concrete by the fifth story.  So in a way it’s good–at least in my mind–that some of the other characters can pick up a little of the slack and make things seem more interesting and fresh, so it doesn’t entirely seem like I’m just using the same template story over and over again.

On the flip side, as I mentioned, it can take away some of our hero’s importance.  The last thing I want is to spread the story so thin among all these characters that our hero Emma becomes a secondary character herself.  The challenge then is to keep her at the forefront while allowing the others a little more face time.

Of course the easy thing to do would be not to expand the roles of secondary characters in the first place.  But then, as I mentioned, things can get stale.  One of the things that bugged me about the City Watch books of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett is that other than the main character Sam Vimes, none of the other characters really seemed to develop much.  A couple got promoted, but we didn’t really learn anything more about them.  In particular the werewolf character bugged me because every story she was in she’d bitch about being a werewolf, which seemed like her entire role in every story besides beating people up.  After a while I wanted a little personal growth.  Either that or let her fade away, but don’t give me the same spiel over and over again about how being a werewolf sucks–I heard you the first time!

The other real problem in my case is that some of the stuff I come up with in the fifth story conflicts with stuff in the first four stories.  That’s not a huge problem because none will ever be published.  Still, at some point I’d need to retroactively fix things.  But maybe by the eighth story things will largely be set in concrete.  Of course by then we’ll have introduced some more secondary characters.  Argh!

Anyway, if you don’t believe me about any of this, just think of “The Simpsons,” which is my favorite show.  When it started in 1989 you pretty much just had Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie.  Then along came a second wave of characters like Moe, Barney, Mr. Burns, Milhouse,  Smithers, Grandpa, Skinner, Chief Wiggum, Flanders, and others.  By the 21st season you have characters who started out as one-line jokes (Cletus the slack-jawed yokel, Disco Stu, ol’ Gil, crazy cat-throwing lady) who have now become recurring players.  Very few characters have been retired (Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz after Phil Hartman died, Maude Flanders and Bleeding Gums Murphy when they were killed off) but things haven’t gotten too out of control because each show generally focuses on one or more of the core Simpson family characters.  That probably explains part of why it’s been on for 21 years.

So in conclusion, it’s good to expand on secondary characters a little, but don’t let them take over.  All things in moderation.

Check Back Thursday for another Reading FUNdamentals.

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