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Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Writing - Supporting characters (1)

While main protagonists are essential for a good novel, very few books can survive without supporting characters – those secondary individuals who pop in and out of the story. In most cases they’re necessary to help move the story forward. For a beginning writer, they can be used to slow down the action, create interaction that does not move the story forward. So these pesky characters have to be watched carefully.

Any given hero or heroine needs a sounding board, and that’s the secondary character. Otherwise, there’s a risk of little dialogue and worse, the main protagonist may end up either talking to himself or thinking instead of doing.

But how many subsidiary characters can you use?

That depends on the work. A fast-paced thriller will require few, while an epic fantasy may depend on many.

As a rule of thumb, a standard-length book might have six prominent named characters; there will be others, but they tend to pass through, perhaps never to be seen again. A long while back, I recall reading that our memories are most comfortable with remembering lists or items up to six in number.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about this. If each character is memorable in some way, then the problem won’t arise.

Additionally, we don’t want character names sounding similar or even beginning with the same letter; avoid reader confusion wherever possible.

Your subsidiary characters can crop up for a variety of reasons, so long as they serve the plot.

For my ‘Avenging Cat’ crime series, there are the continuous characters, Catherine Vibrissae, Rick Barnes, the two dogs of law, DI Alan Pointer and DS Carol Basset, and the villains  Loup Malefice and Emilio Zabala.

In Catalyst (#1 in the series) we also meet the private eye Avril Bradbury, head of Bradbury & Hood private investigation agency, est. 1896. Though Avril won’t necessarily figure in future books, I am planning a series of Victorian crime stories about the setting up of that agency, featuring Avril’s ancestors! Other characters are required from time to time to help our heroes. In Catalyst, Rick’s contact Leon Cazador proves useful when they go to Barcelona. Cazador is the half-Spanish half-English private eye featured in Spanish Eye, 22 cases ‘in his own words’.
In Catacomb (#2, to be published by Crooked Cat in October), we meet Chuck Marston, a retired safe-cracker and jewel thief, aged 62, who tutors Cat in his techniques. In the same book, we also meet Detective Latifa Badouri of Morocco’s Sûreté nationale – and when I finished I felt that I’d like to meet her again, and maybe I shall... (#3, Cataclysm is due out in December).

For my Tana Standish psychic spy series (set in the 1970s/1980s, beginning with The Prague Papers), again there are continuous characters, namely Tana herself, fellow agents Alex Tyson, Alan Swann and Mike Clayton, their boss Sir Gerald Hazzard, the British SIS psychologist, James Fisk, the thoroughly unpleasant Professor Dmitri Bublyk and his two psychic stars, Karel Yakunin and Raisa Savitsky. There is conflict between some of these people, and each has a purpose in moving the story forward. Besides these, there are 36 other named characters in The Tehran Text (#2 in the series). Even minor individuals deserve to have a name, providing they have a speaking part, of course! (#3, The Khyber Chronicle will be due early 2016).
My co-written work in progress, To Be King, the fantasy sequel to Wings of the Overlord (#1 in the Chronicles of Floreskand), currently has around 70 named characters – so far! This is a fantasy epic, however, and many individuals will be sustained over a half-dozen books.

There’s a full chapter dedicated to character creation in my book Write a Western in 30 Days (Chapter 8, p87) and it covers minor characters too, even tackling their description and names (and is not solely geared to the western genre).
I’ll return to this subject in another blog to discuss a handful of supporting characters who decided – nay, insisted – they wanted more than a small walk-on part and intruded on another character’s series of books...!
Catalyst – paperback & also currently a bargain e-book (till 27 August)
Amazon UK here                                  Amazon Com here

Spanish Eye – paperback & also currently a bargain e-book (till 27 August)
Amazon UK here                                 Amazon Com here

The Prague Papers - currently a bargain e-book (till 27 August)
Amazon UK here                                Amazon Com here
The Tehran Text - currently a bargain e-book (till 27 August)
Amazon UK here                                Amazon Com here

Wings of the Overlord – hardback, (paperback due in December)
Amazon UK here                               Amazon Com here

Write a Western in 30 Days – paperback and e-book
Amazon UK here                              Amazon Com here



Jan Warburton said...

Excellent piece, Nik! I so agree with many of your points regarding supporting characters etc.
I also agree wholeheartedly about having too many major characters in any novel, especially with similar names and those starting with the same initial. I find this can get quite confusing at times, especially if they're sometimes in the same scenes together. Indeed in my own fiction writing I find that a maximum of 6, is just about right, with other supporting characters just flitting in and out again.
If I discover too many major characters turning up in a book within the first few chapters it soon discourages me to continue reading, unless the storyline is a particularly gripping and then I will battle on a bit longer, despite it irritating me. Even then it can baffle me when the names are too similar.
Strange how many writers still fall into the trap of using names starting with the same initial when there is all the alphabet and a wealth of wonderful names to choose from! This was one of the first things I was advised NOT to do when I started fiction writing and attended the novel writing course at Swanwick Writers Summer School and it's stuck with me ever since. Another point I think important is to make sure the names really do suit the characters, whether main or just supporting ones. Fascinating topic to discuss, Nik and one worth learning more about. Thanks.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks for the detailed response, Jan. A multiplicity of character names can work providing they're in context - so it may work for a historical or fantasy book but not a contemporary novel. Think of the screenplays of certain books; often characters are amalgamated to reduce the number of actors (and avoid viewer confusion, no doubt!)