FiYoShiMo Day 12 Secondary Characters

Today’s the final day of character development on FiYoShiMo, and honestly, the topic today almost didn’t make the cut. When I started mapping out the ideas you’ve been reading about for the last twelve days, I was worried that several of the days weren’t as strong as other days – that the topics weren’t as exciting, they weren’t as well developed. I’ve tried not to worry about it, but today was a particularly tough topic, because there are a lot of examples, but not a lot of definitions behind them. I hope what I’ve presented below helps clarify something I think we all take for granted.

Have you ever noticed the number of “and”s when we look at characters? Batman AND Robin. The Lone Ranger AND Tonto. Riggs AND Murtaugh. Tango AND Cash.

‘And’ is a potent word, when you think about it, because it creates a relationship. We don’t always know what kind of relationship, whether it’s as equals (see Riggs and Murtaugh) or superior-subordinate (Batman and Robin), but there’s a relationship to consider. We have to find out which relationship is present in the story, and adjust our expectations accordingly. It’s not bad that it works out that way, but setting expectations in power dynamics between characters is critical, because as a reader, we want to follow the most compelling character, even if they’re lower on the hierarchy than another character.

Power dynamics sit at the heart of today’s FiYoShiMo, because we’re talking about secondary characters. A secondary character is any character in a story who isn’t the main character, who contributes something to the story, and who isn’t a cameo. Steve the barista isn’t a secondary character if he makes one appearance to pour our weary protag some macchiato. That’s a cameo. Steve the barista becomes a secondary character when the story becomes about people hiding in the coffee shop because aliens have landed and are shooting humans under orders from their leader Donald Trump. (Topical!)

A power dynamic is how a relationship gets expressed between characters. For binary relationships, there are two:

a) A Superior/Subordinate relationship, where the subordinate is reduced in role and is often portrayed as younger, less knowledgeable, or to some degree lesser than the superior. Often the subordinate is a “sidekick”, which comes from pickpocket slang, as a kick is a pocket safest from theft, and a side-kick is the inseparable companion to the kick.

b) A Partner relationship, also called a “two-hander”, where each partner often typifies a particular archetype or mindset or approach and while they’re at odds with each other, they work together well.

These hinge on the idea that you’ve got two characters coordinated together. Manipulating that power dynamic is often a source of story tension, as you can lead the subordinate to chafe against the superior (see Robin against Batman, becoming Nightwing), or split the partners up only to get them back together (see any buddy cop movie).

But what about where you have way more than two characters you need to focus on? Then we get into what are called secondary role characters, where each character has a function to serve or aid the protagonist (or antagonist, but I’m going to use the protagonist, since I have better examples). There are plenty of secondary role characters:

The knowledge proxy (or sage character) is the character who supplies the protagonist with information or items the protagonist could not easily get themselves. This is Q from James Bond, or the old wise man in town who gives the knight the magic item to use at a later time. They know something relevant to the story, and they share that knowledge so the protagonist can go do stuff. There’s an assumption here that the secondary character couldn’t do what the protagonist could do, and an agreement that the knowledge proxy fills their role and nothing more.

The comedic secondary character is the character who brings levity to the story, often at their own expense, or within a subplot. This is Ralph Malph and Potsie from the early Happy Days seasons, this is the wise-cracking character who is there to lighten the mood, usually has the funnier lines, and when the plot requires it, is often put in danger to highlight that they’re still a contributing member of the team, even when their technical role is unclear (I’m looking at you CBS shows).

The romantic secondary character is the character who provides sexual or emotional tension to the story by giving the protagonist a possible love interest or relationship. This is the character the protag will eventually end up with as a couple, either for good or ill, either successfully or not. This often comes up on television when you need an emotional cliffhanger, or when you’re trying to stress a will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic.

The mentor secondary character is the character who provides the protagonist guidance through previous experience or teaching. Obi Wan Kenobi. Old Bruce Wayne to Terry McGinnis. There comes a point in this mentor relationship where the protag and mentor have to part company for one reason or another, and not doing so can lock the characters in a permanent superior/subordinate relationship. When this happens for Batman, they find a new Robin. Or the Doctor finds a new Companion.

The ingenue is the character that allows the protagonist to be a mentor. This is character is new to the experiences of the story, often it’s their first day on the job, or the first case. It’s the rookie, and while it’s common to make this character a protagonist on their own (so that the audience gets maximum exposure to the world, see Harry Potter), when the ingenue is a secondary character, you get a chance to see more of the protag’s philosophy and motivations, in addition to their actions, as in Arrow when Oliver adds Roy Harper to the retinue.

The oppositional secondary character is a character that opposes the protagonist but does not prevent them from taking action, because plot. This is your angry chief of police in any cop movie, or Malfoy for Harry Potter. They’re not exactly the antagonist, but they don’t make the protagonist’s life easier, which is probably why so many cops are loose cannons in 80s movies and why Malfoy shows up intersectionally with whatever the hell Harry is doing.

All these secondary characters provide the protagonist either conflict to work against, or aid while working through conflict. That aid isn’t always direct (sometimes the comedic secondary just makes a joke before the scene ends), but it’s present. And that’s because the secondary character, regardless of type, exists in the story for their role above all else. Ages ago, these characters were called “service” characters, though now the only one of those older titles that exist is “fan service”. A secondary character performs a role and gets out of the way. And when you need filler, you take a secondary character and give them a subplot. The highest level of story production a secondary character can accomplish is subplot. If a secondary character affects primary plot, they’re a protagonist. (We’ll talk subplots on Day 16)

I want to stress these roles aren’t story permanent. You can promote or demote a character as story evolves. The possible red flag there is that doing it too quickly or doing it too frequently will make it difficult for the reader to invest in the character, and possibly make it harder to follow along in the story. Wait, they’ll ask, is this character a big deal or not? Am I supposed to care about this? You see this sometimes in two places with television shows – early on, when the show is still finding its footing, so a character changes and then locks into that change (like Fonzie becoming more central in Happy Days) or later on in a show, where in order to advance an arc, or provide an arc, an established character makes a huge and unclear change in their nature (like Parker in Leverage going from a crazy fun character to a sort of level-headed leader after a few rounds of dialogue, a change in wardrobe and a change in setting).

You also run the risk of invalidating your primary protagonist by adding more protagonists through promotion. It doesn’t make sense to suddenly make Q and M extra worried about Spectre, they’re already worried about Spectre, and it makes Bond less Bond if he needs to call in allies to handle opposition that he’s supposed to be capable of defeating. Secondary characters are already invested in the protagonist’s efforts, you don’t need to double down.

Do you need secondary characters? No. You can do perfectly fine telling a story of without a lot of extra pieces (see the movie Phone Booth). They do serve a purpose, they can broaden possibilities in story, they can give you extra room to stretch and new risks to take. But they’re not critical the way the protagonist is. You can tell a Batman story without Robin (in fact, some of the better ones, do).

To build a secondary character, look at their function. Ask what purpose they accomplish in the story. Then build outward from the purpose to see where you can plug it into the larger story. The arms dealer in chapter 6 is interesting, but he’s there just to give out explosives. When he shows up later, it’s for more explosions, not to opine about his mother’s failing gallbladder. The sudden reveal of his mother is more strange than appealing, and it doesn’t help endear us to the character.

The purpose of the secondary character is to serve the story, not appease the audience. Story always comes first, and secondary characters are personified routes of advancement.

Tomorrow, we start looking at plot. Write your plot down somewhere and have it ready to go.

See you then.


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