Villains and Secondary Characters: Positioning and Mystery

When considering the character arc of villains and secondary characters, how that arc resolves is often considered in relation to the hero/protagonist. That does not have to be the ultimate determining fact, though.

Positioning

It is all right for a secondary character to start and/or end up in a better position than the main character. If a secondary character is better suited or more qualified to rule or win or gain a benefit, then it is logical that they would unless the writer provides a good enough reason for a different outcome. Secondary characters should be allowed to act on their strengths and fail or struggle based on their weaknesses. Don’t limit a secondary character’s arc just for the sake of making the main character look better.

It is also acceptable for a villain to reach a resolution that is more positive than expected. Part of a villain’s character arc may be self-improvement, so a better-than-expected resolution may be warranted. It may also be the case that an equitable ending between the villain and hero is not the most reasonable or desirable outcome for the story.

The hero (or villain) does not always have to end in that role. Switching roles are altering a main character’s path can be an important element of development for that character. Allow his or her traits and personality to determine the path taken, rather than locking him or her into a particular role.

Mystery

When writing a main character, it is often necessary to divulge a great deal of detail, going into backstory, motivations, thoughts, and feelings. When developing a secondary character, it is often necessary to be more sparing with details due to space constraints. That doesn’t mean that these characters are incomplete.

Revealing fewer details can work to your advantage and help you create some mystery and opportunities for future development in later stories or chapters. Reveal details about a secondary character that are pertinent to the main storyline or main character’s development. Hold back other details, but do so in a way that motivates the reader ask questions and wonder.

Give enough details about a secondary character that the reader can understand that character’s personality, culture, place in the story, relation to the story and main character in time, and his or her potential character arc. Leaving out more specific details reminds the reader that there is more to the story and makes the story world feel more realistic because it extends beyond the immediate storyline.

There is so much more to a great story than a lovable hero. Readers need to connect emotionally to every character on some level to keep them interested and involved in the story. Love or hate or something in between, reaction is key. Apathy toward characters breeds disinterest. Disinterested readers put books down and look elsewhere…permanently.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Altering the Focus

When you begin plotting or developing a story idea, the main characters are necessarily the focus, however, once you are into the details of the story it’s important to alter the focus occasionally to better develop the secondary characters.

If a secondary character seems to be falling to the wayside or not sticking in the reader’s mind, that can be a good time to turn the focus toward that character. This can provide a needed break from the main storyline and give the reader a change to process information or a big event or change while still progressing the story in an interesting way.

Shining a light of a secondary character’s motivations and desires may also give insight into his or her relationship to the main characters and overall storyline.

Consider questions of this nature to help you give a secondary character more meaningful page time: Who does this character love or hate and why? What does he or she fear? What are his or her thoughts about the journey taking place in the story? What personal issues of a secondary character may impact the main character’s journey?

It’s okay for a secondary character to have a life away from the main character. Most of their page time will relate to their interactions with or impact on the main character, but not all of it. Allowing a secondary character to exist semi-independently in the story provides more opportunities for that character to influence the story and main character because he or she is more fully developed.

A great example of a secondary character with an independent story that is only occasionally given focus (to great effect) is Cliff from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The viewer never gets his full backstory, but it certainly exists and seems to be quite interesting. It led to his connection and interactions with the main character, but it’s only brought to the forefront of the story when needed to explain why he sticks around and can’t find consistent work elsewhere in Hollywood. Even thought the viewer never gets to know Cliff fully, he feels quite complex and realistic.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Determining Role

Secondary character should have a distinct role in the story in order to avoid becoming filler and getting lost in the greater plot.

The role of a secondary character should NOT exist only in relation to the main character. This creates flat characters who are difficult to develop into more meaningful elements in a story. Consider why a secondary character is involved with a hero/villain and why he or she continues to associate with them. Taking a deeper look at motivation can help confirm their role in the overall story.

A secondary character with a strong sense of duty may struggle to disentangle themselves from a main character making harmful decisions, or a secondary character who is a friend and coworker of the main character may be riding that character’s coattails of success in hopes of moving up themselves. The deeper you dive into why a secondary character exists in a story and how he or she will impact it, the more engaging and interesting the character and story will be.

It is very easy to fall into stereotypes with secondary characters. Stereotypes can be a good starting point, but should never be the end development of a secondary character. Be mindful that you are not pigeon-holing a character into a role such as the comic relief, love interest, lovable rogue, wise old mentor, token diversity character, etc. If you can describe a secondary character in a few words or less, he or she needs further development. Where did that most noticeable characteristic come from and what purpose does it serve for that character?

A secondary character’s thoughts, actions, and choices should be largely based on their own needs and desires and not always fall back to what the main character needs or wants. While secondary characters do serve to aid the development of the main character and move the story along, be sure to weave in his or her own development and progress. This will add important layers of realism to a story.

If you aren’t sure yet why a secondary character might do or say something, take some time to create a backstory for him or her. You may not use most of the backstory information you develop, but it will help you better understand the character and write them in a more realistic and relatable way. The backstory may only be a paragraph or two, but it helps cement that character as an individual in your mind while writing.

Understanding a secondary character’s role in the story will help you better integrate them and make them stand out as memorable and interesting to the reader.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Secondary Characters with Impact

While secondary characters are typically less integral to a story, that doesn’t mean they should be any less real.

Secondary characters should still have some level of a character arc, though it will necessarily be less complex than the main character’s arc.

Even though much of a secondary character’s backstory may never see page time, it’s important that you know their story and personality so you can weave it into their interactions with the main characters. This will not only make them more memorable, it will also make the interactions more meaningful and provide a fuller scene with the main character.

Secondary characters should also have a purpose. They should, in some way, help to progress the storyline through their presence or interactions with the main characters. This may come in the form of providing assistance, revealing information, being an emotional support, etc. How a secondary character progresses the story depends greatly on the type of story it is, but be mindful that they should be serving a purpose and not be acting a page filler or a basic sounding board.

It’s also important to consider a secondary character’s motivation. Why is he or she helping this character? Because you, as the author, need them to is not a good enough reason. Reach into their backstory to find and then develop their motivation. Help doesn’t have to be entirely altruistic either. The secondary character should have mixed feelings about providing help, or be reluctant to offer it. It could also be self-serving or their presence could act as a hindrance or barrier rather than being helpful.

Secondary characters exist on either side of the protagonist-antagonist spectrum. Don’t short change secondary characters involved with the villain/antagonist. These characters can be important cogs in the overall mechanism of how the antagonist’s path and ultimate resolution unfold. An antagonist taking something too far could prompt a secondary character to walk away, leading to him or her reconsidering what they are doing. Alternately, a secondary character who wants the antagonist to fail could give the final nudge to push him or her over the edge and initiate a chain of events that leads to his or her downfall.

Secondary characters may have less page time than main characters, but their influence on other characters and events can be profound when the time is taken to full develop them and integrate them into the story.

Story Structure: Showing Character Change and Staying on Point

Every scene in a book should have a purpose. Part of that purpose should be to show how a character is progressing through their arc.

Showing Character Change

Every scene should demonstration some form of character change. The change exhibited may be subtle, especially if it is a transition scene or largely informational. When considering how to show how a character is changing, think back to the character arc and what point the character is on the arc at that moment.

The change shown should show development and growth of the character in reference to previous scenes, or show backsliding behavior that may lead toward a crisis. The change shown should be related to what is happening in the scene.

Whatever happens in the scene should have an impact on the character, eliciting change on some level, whether emotional, mental, or behavioral. Change should match the character and the event to keep it realistic. A minor even that creates a major change will feel forced to the reader.

One character may also see an event as not a big deal, while the other sees it as a huge problem, so be sure to consider the character’s personality developed up to that point. The character needs to react and change according to their perceptions.

Staying on Point

Scenes should leave out all the boring and non-important details of the characters’ lives. Life may be filled with the mundane, but scenes should not include details that are not relevant to the scene’s purpose.

If the information, actions, or dialogue don’t pertain to the purpose of the scene, cut it out and reevaluate what is needed to move the scene forward.

Consider starting in the middle of a scene, with action of some kind, and leave out the movements in and out of the scene. This helps curtail unnecessary details that will bore or confuse the reader. Irrelevant details can make the reader focus on the wrong information, thinking it is important to the story or scene.

Only insert backstory when it doesn’t slow the present scene. If a large portion of backstory explanation is needed, structure the scene around that information rather than trying to insert it into scenes with a different purpose. It’s also important only to share relevant backstory information needed for that particular scene to keep from bogging it down.

Creating a Protagonist with Depth:Part 2

If you haven’t read Part One of this series, you can find it HERE.

Now…on with the show!

In PART TWO of this series, we’ll be talking about Stereotypes and Archetypes. If you’re not sure what one or both of these are, have no fear, they’ll be explained, and we’ll also talk about whether they should or shouldn’t be used and how to tell the difference.

StripedShirtWomanStereotypes

What are Stereotypes and why should you be careful when using them?

Stereotypes

  • A character that is so ordinary or unoriginal that they seem like an oversimplified version of a person, class, gender, etc.

Basically, this means the character is one dimensional. What readers see is what they get. There’s nothing deeper to their thoughts, personalities, or motivations. Simply put, these are not the most interesting characters. Certainly not what you want to model your Main Character after!

Why should you avoid this?

  • Stereotypes are rarely accurate. Not only can they be offensive, they make for poor characters because readers can guess exactly what they will think, do, say, or respond. That’s boring.

There are times when Stereotypes are used effectively in fiction. These are usually your secondary or tertiary characters who aren’t integral to the plot and provide “filler” in a scene or situation. They don’t add to the story, particularly, or move the plot along, and usually have very little page time.

Even when writing these types of characters, be careful to avoid writing a character that draws too heavily on ideas that may be found offensive or off putting. Stereoptypical character should be used very sparingly, even when writing secondary or tertiary characters.

Gabriel with swordArchetypes

What are archetypes and should you use them?

Archetypes

  • A typical character, action, or situation that seems to represent a universal pattern of human nature

Are they bad?

  • Archetypes can be used effectively when done right. For example, the “Hero,” “Innocent Youth,” or “Mentor” characters appear in many works of fiction.

Fantasy and Science Fiction often use archetypal characters, and you also see them quite frequently in comic book storylines as well. Popular examples would included Darth Vader and Anakin/Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars,” The Giver and Jonas from “The Giver,” and Sauron, Gandalf, and Frodo from “The Lord of the Rings.”

  • The challenge is creating an archetype without falling into stereotype. Even if your character is following an archetypal pattern, they still need to be complex and unpredictable at times.

In comic some comic books, the hero and villain are intentionally portrayed as stereotypical archetypes. Such as, the villain is ALL evil while the hero is ALL good. In such stark good vs. evil storylines, this works very well. Many other comics prefer to use more complex heroes and villains, which is what fiction/prose writers want to accomplish as well. No villain is completely evil and no hero is undeniably pure. There has to be more to the story, deeper reasons, secrets, hidden desires, and more layers than your readers can see in one glance to make sure you’re writing a well rounded and interesting archetype.

Next up is Character Arcs…what they are, how to use them, and what they will help you accomplish. In the mean time, I’d love to hear your examples of stereotypical and archetypal characters from books or comics you’ve read!