In the previous blog post, we discussed the first six of the top eleven questions on how to create memorable sidekicks. These included:
Deciding how many secondary characters there will be in the novel;
Deciding the role of the secondary character (in relation to the plot);
Deciding the goals and motives of the secondary character;
Deciding the secondary character’s endpoint;
Deciding the story-arc for the secondary character; and
Deciding the secondary character’s positive and negative traits.
In this blog post, we will discuss questions seven to eleven (inclusive):
Question 7 – What Will Be The Secondary Character’s Flaw?
The seventh of the top eleven questions on how to create memorable sidekicks is about the character’s flaw. In real life, all people are flawed. It is part of what makes us three-dimensional. A secondary character, therefore, must have a flaw and it must be linked to the plot.
Raven/Mystique and Beth (Rinona Ryder) both have flaws as neither can accept themselves for who they are, and both impose their flaws on their respective plots.
In Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class, Raven/Mystique’s inability to come to terms with her body causes her much distress throughout the film; and causes her to eventually leave Charles Xavier/Professor X and side with Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, who gives her an outlet.
Likewise, in Darren Aranofsky’s film, Black Swan, Erica (Barbara Hershey) cannot deal with her past failures as a ballerina, so she controls her daughter, Nina (Natalie Portman), and pushes Nina ever harder to achieve what she did not. This is in part why Nina has a complete psychotic breakdown during the course of the movie.
Question 8 – What Will Be The Secondary Character’s Internal Conflict?
The eight of the top eleven questions on how to create memorable sidekicks centres around the secondary character’s internal conflict. As was discussed in the previous blog post, writers must create mental strife for their secondary character(s) and make this strife relevant to the plot. This way, the reader can empathise with the character, and be engaged with him/her.
Arguably the best example in fantasy of an engaging, multi-faceted secondary character whose heart is deeply conflicted is Boromir from The Lord of the Rings.
At Rivendell, Boromir vows to protect Frodo, and there is no question that he wants to help the hobbit destroy the ring. But Boromir also cares deeply for his father, the Steward of Gondor, whose rule is failing; and for his people, who have suffered so much at Mordor’s hands, and who do not have the strength to withstand another (impending) onslaught. This leads Boromir to see the all-powerful ring as his one chance to save everything he holds dear. He tries to take the ring from Frodo. This results in Frodo abandoning the fellowship and Boromir doing his utmost (in vain) to save Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-Hai to redeem himself.
Boromir’s confliction was portrayed superbly by Sean Bean in The Fellowship of the Ring. This still on the mountains highlights the internal strife that Boromir suffers.
Question 9 – What Will Be The Backstory For The Secondary Character?
A secondary character does not come out of a vacuum. He/she has a past, and the character’s past must affect their decisions (i.e. how he/she influences the central protagonist to advance the plot).
A great example of a secondary character in fantasy with a backstory is Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter. We learn at the beginning of the series that he was brought up by his formidable grandmother, which in part explains his timidity and low self-esteem. In the fourth installment, The Goblet of Fire, we learn that his parents were tortured into sanity by Voldemort’s allies and no longer recognise their own son. Neville’s background is sad and horrific in many respects. But it also explains his desire to make sure that the Dark Lord never rises again; and why he fights beside Harry heroically in the seventh installment, The Deathly Hallows.
The backstories for Neville Longbottom and Denna explain so much about why they behave the way they do (even if we are still waiting to find out a lot about Denna).
A secondary character in a fantasy story that I am personally waiting to learn more about is Denna from Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. She is quick-witted, intelligent and talented. Yet, she is also homeless, evasive, always on the lookout for a sugar-daddy, and disappears from time to time. I hope that in the third installment, Doors of Stone, we find out what made Denna become the person she is and how that affects the main character, Kvothe.
Question 10 – What Will Be The Gender, Age And Status Of The Secondary Characters?
The gender, age and status of the secondary characters can give the reader an interesting perspective on the society from which he/she comes from or lives in. But nothing more. (Indeed, if the writer is relying on these factors to make his/her secondary characters engaging, the writer will not create compelling characters.)
For example, Hermione Grainger, through Harry, gives readers an idea of what it must be like to be an 11-year-old girl from a muggle family in Potterverse. But, in and of itself, this does not make Hermione worthy of note (apart from when Draco Malfoy sneers at her and calls her ‘Mudblood’ from time to time). Rather, it is her intelligence, loyalty to Harry, rigidity to the rules, and ability to find solutions to seemingly insolvable problems that make Hermione engaging and significant to the plot.
This is equally true for Selina Kyle/Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. Her background as a ‘cat’ thief is not an appealing trait and not what keeps viewers on their toes. Rather, it is because she is smart and skilled; can kick arse; and utterly untrustworthy. Consequently, the viewer never knows if she will help Bruce Wayne/Batman.
The age, gender and status of Hermione and Selina Kyle/Catwoman gives the viewers empathy initially. But what keeps us engaged is how they use their initial place to their advantage.
Question 11 – What Is Advisable Not To Do?
The eleventh of the top eleven questions on how to create memorable sidekicks is about what writers should not do. All too often in fiction and fantasy, secondary characters can be boiled down to a one-trick pony. They do not reflect the complexity of real people and are either in the story for convenience, for comic relief, or to be the main character’s love interest.
Suffice to say, none of these, in and of themselves, make for an engaging character and seldom do they advance the plot. Thus, avoid these clichéd, lazy tropes. They have been done enough.
Assess the secondary characters that you have liked in books, films and TV shows, and which ones you have not liked. Ask yourself what it was about them that you did or did not like, and write these down for inspiration for characters in your novel.
After this (and while you contemplate how to approach crafting a story), make an estimate of how many secondary characters you want in your story. Then, consider how each of the secondary influence characters will influence the main character and the plot. These two steps, already, should have you whittling away at some unnecessary characters.
Thank you for reading this blog piece and I hope all of the above helps you create three-dimensional, engaging and memorable sidekicks that enrich your story. Please let me know what you think of this blog piece in the comments below, and if you feel I have left anything out.
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