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MIND MELD: Secondary Characters Who Take Center Stage

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Protagonists and antagonists get lots of spotlight in novels, but sometimes the most intriguing characters are the minor ones, the ones that briefly grace the stage and depart, leaving the main characters to their business.This week, we asked our panel about the most iconic of fantasy creatures:

Q: What minor characters in novels and stories have caught your interest, and want to know more about? What characters in your own work have gathered unexpected interest, and you’d like to write from their point of view?

This is what they said…

K.D. McEntire
K.D. McEntire is the author of the Lightbringer Trilogy and a series of short superhero and megalomanic short stories. She can be found on the web at, on twitter as @kdmcentire, facebook, and wordpress. She also responds well to bacon. Bacon does not suck.

Sub-supporting characters are fantastic primers for the imagination. With the main and supporting characters you get a firm idea of what they do in their off time, how they go about the day when they’re not out and about poking their nose in the world’s business. But the other characters? The blips? They could be doing *anything* and because their character isn’t fleshed out it’s not only in character but a glimpse into the world behind the world building.

In case you can’t tell, I love all the little background characters. They make me grin.

There are tons of little characters that I can think of – here and gone – in various works that are interesting and unique and spark that certain something. In television and movies (Joss Whedon’s background characters, anyone?) you get a visual glimpse of the characters and that’s enough to anchor them sometimes. Add a little snark and they stick like a burr, demanding to be expanded.

In literature, the most recent small-potatoes character I’ve thought about comes from “Gone Girl”. Specifically the landlady of the cabins. The slickest tongue and most brilliant, conniving mind can’t convince her to bend. It makes me wonder what kind of life she’s lived and what she’s seen. I’m a softie. I’d have given the girl a week. I’d also probably be out of a business.

There are two sub-supporting characters in my own work (Reaper and Never) that I’ve been questioned about. One character turns out to be a much more important character in disguise, fixing past mistakes as best they can but the other – Sarah – is a temporary character in the best and most important way. She is the inadvertent key, a broken little girl insistent on taking care of herself in a world where she’s FOOD for things a million times bigger and badder than she is. And, most importantly, if she weren’t around, everyone would have died. Again.

What I love about her, about writing her, is the underlying theme of “take care of the people you can” that I tried to weave throughout my trilogy. The main characters, even the antagonists, all have others depending on them – children, family, other reapers, an army of the undead. They all are beholden. Except for Sarah. But she helps out of the goodness of her heart when no one else can for no more payment than new reading material.

Girl after my own heart. Limbo can get boring after a while after all.

Alexandra Pierce
Alexandra Pierce is a reviewer ( and a podcaster (one-third of the Hugo-nominated Galactic Suburbia).

I have realised in the last few years that I’m a fairly conservative reader in that I tend not to get sidetracked by minor characters as much as some others – at least, that’s what references to fan fiction has led me to conclude. Nonetheless there are definitely some minor characters for whom I have developed a great passion, the first (chronologically in my reading, and possibly also in my heart) being Faramir. Faramir, that paragon on virtue and manliness! (In the book, anyway; I ignore his personality in the films.) Ahem. I love him very much and wish that Tolkien had been one of those people to write side-stories, because I would read about Faramir camping out in the wilderness all day. And don’t get me started on the possibilities of Faramir and Eowyn having awesome adventures together…

The graphic novel series Saga does a very good line making its minor characters fairly major. While Alana, Marko and Hazel are the focus, most of the others are getting quite serious character development as well. The two that, at this stage, I am most interested in following are The Will – a mercenary who’s just developed a heart – and Prince Robot IV. Because he has a tv for a head.

In TV my standout breakout is Romo Lampkin from the revamped Battlestar Galactica. Initially introduced as a lawyer, not a particularly scrupulous one but a very very clever one nonetheless, who is utterly aware of his own shortcomings. His back story is hinted at via his cat, which he hates, and a missing (possibly abandoned) wife. I watched the prequel series Caprica and enjoyed bits of it; I would have watched Lawyer Lampkin and His Cat all night (after Faramir Goes Hunting all day). Because there would be just so many opportunities for snark, and you just know that a beautifully just ending would worm its way out of his heart and his tricksy, tricksy words.

Finally, having recently rewatched all of the Harry Potter films, I was struck by the teachers at Hogwarts. I know there is more detail – although not that much – in the books, but the films leave the teachers as almost entirely enigmatic. Severus Snape: an enigma partially unwrapped in the end. Gilderoy Lockhart: how did he manage to fool the magic community for so long? And Minerva McGonagall: the most inspiring of teachers, for those of us who are teachers; I want her stare.

Minor characters are a necessity in good fiction (mostly). Too much time on minor characters, and things get out of hand (looking at you, Jordan, and you too, Martin!). But a good minor characters lends itself to glorious flights of fancy.

Adrian Tchaikovsky
Adrian Tchaikovsky was born in Lincolnshire and studied zoology and psychology at Reading, before practising law in Leeds. He is the author of the Shadow of the Apt series as well as numerous short stories.

For me, minor characters come to life when they have their own lives that don’t revolve around those of the leads: even if they’re just puttering about in the background, you can chart a little plot arc unique to them, a history in miniature. Peter Beagle does this beautifully in The Folk of the Air, my favourite book of all time and sadly out of print. There, the diverse crowd of semi-Larpers who form the backdrop for the story of magic and divinity to play out are all presented in wonderful detail, described with Beagle’s trademark elegance of language.

Another writer who’s a master of this is Gene Wolfe. His grand sequence of Books of the New Sun, Long Sun and Short Sun contain a myriad of characters, some met once, some repeatedly, and the structure of the book is like a sheath of grasses, all those individual stories intertwining, first in Severian’s recollection, then in Patera Silk’s for the later volumes. Because Wolfe never tells us anything directly, it’s through these many characters that we have the chance to understand his world and his story.

In Miéville’s Perdido Street Station there is a trio of characters who have a very small role in the plot but are highly memorable because they are the author’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek RPG adventuring party, hired by the heroes as a big of muscle. A rogue, a mage and a fighter (with a magic gun), the brevity of their appearance belies the work that Mieville puts into making them real and individual, with personalities of their own.

For myself, I actually wrote about this topic recently on my own blog, setting out a handful of minor characters who graduate into something more as the series goes on. Of these, the most unexpectedly poignant is te Berro, a member of the Rekef, the Wasp Empire’s secret police. He fulfils various roles in the early books, as a helper and a facilitator, but if you follow his shadowy thread you find a story of a man who backs the wrong horse in the factional disputes within the Rekef, ends up in hiding from the executioner’s axe, becomes a mercenary spy in a foreign land and then dies, betrayed and alone, trying to prevent a war that will sweep all before it. Not bad for a bit part, really.

However the absolute most memorable minor character, for me, comes in Julian May’s Many Coloured Land series. It’s another sequence with a huge cast and many unique figures, but even the leads pale in comparison to Dougal. The setting is one where a time portal back to the Pliocene allows misfits and loners from a future earth to go live a simpler life with Ramapithecus and mammoths. Except, unbeknownst to them, Pliocene earth is the home of two warring alien races who will go on to be the inspiration for the monsters and elder beings of our many myth cycles. When the protagonists discover this, one of their fellow prisoners is Dougal, a confused guy who turned up dressed as a Crusader and wanders about desperately calling on Aslan for aid, because he’s obviously a poor, lost lunatic. And then, in a later book, we run into Dougal again, and he is kicking seventeen shades of ass because all that geek lore he learned about RPG monsters or whatever is suddenly real and relevant, and he is a hero of the human resistance and living the dream.

Gillian Pollack
Gillian Polack is the author of Ms Cellophane (Momentum, 2012) and Illuminations (Trivium Publishing, 2003) and the editor of Baggage (Eneit Press, 2010) and Masques (CSfG Publishing). She is a writer and academic, and so torn between the worlds of the Middle Ages and of fiction that she did a PhD in each. She is also somewhat notorious in Australian fan circles for devising historical menus for the Conflux banquets. She has been shortlisted for several Ditmars and has won just one. Her latest short story is about archaeologists and can be found in “Next”

Sherwood Smith talks from time to time about how we play with our reading. This isn’t like playing with our food. It’s more about how our reading is important because of the element of play, of taking the story or the world and using it as a particularly marvellous sandpit. It’s the minor characters that get me involved in this play. I want to roam Middle Earth, but with Sam Gamgee’s girlfriend rather than with Sam or Frodo.

Because we don’t know much about her, I’m free to create a sarcastic and cynical hobbit, who’s going to annoy random shining elves. On a darker day, I want to walk through Shelob’s Lair and find out if it’s hate that holds the carapace of the monster together, or if there’s an entirely different creature hiding beneath the rocks and the pain. If I were a fanfiction writer, these are the fanfictions I would be writing right now. I’m answering this Mind Meld question on the brink of the third heat wave in a month, so there’s no sweetness in my play and no light. My sandpit is, in fact, filled with sarcasm. This is why I love to play with minor characters in the worlds of others, because I get to insert bad dreams and unheroic moments.

Other characters for me, don’t depend on their world so very much. I don’t need to play in that sandpit myself, but I do want to hear more stories about them. When I was looking for examples, I kept encountering the Cat in The Master and Margarita. he fits my current mood perfectly. He’s so very pushy. He totally needs his own novel. He needs many of his own novels. I suspect that I’ll write him, one day, though I won’t call him Bulgakov’s Cat.

I have just one character of my own I’m asked about, and I don’t think I shall be telling her story. Bulgakov’s Cat is far more interesting to me right now than Mirjana from Ms Cellophane. She’s too nice. She’s the only minor character of my own that people have asked about, however, which is probably a very good thing.

Why is it a good thing? Now that my mind is firmly considering the problem of minor characters, I keep returning to Aude, the sole female in the Chanson de Roland. Her role is to die upon hearing the news of Roland’s death. I would very much like to see an entire anthology devoted to her, containing stories by all my favourite authors. Each story would end with that single scene from the epic legend. Her life leading up to each of her untimely deaths would be brilliant and erudite. She might have voyaged for five hundred years in a series of fantastical otherworlds. She might be an expert in poison and have tested one, by mistake. She might have single-handedly stopped the sun so that Charlemagne’s armies can revenge their massacred rear guard and then die of heroic exhaustion.

She probably didn’t do any of these things. She – helped by Bulgakov’s Cat – probably drained Roland of all his commonsense through loathsome mind-tapping techniques. Poor, heroic Roland was left to face the treachery of Ganelon with nothing but his sword, his horn, his best friend, Archbishop Turpin and 10,000 of France’s finest. Thanks to Aude, Roland was doomed. She died because her life’s work was complete.

Tansy Rayner Roberts
Tansy Rayner Roberts writes novels, podcasts madly at Galactic Suburbia and Verity!, and won last year’s Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Her latest fantasy release is Ink Black Magic, in which students are taught about the dangers of magic by a reformed hero – in a world where sheep fly and comic books can kill you. Follow her on Twitter as @tansyrr and on her blog at

I’ve always felt a kinship for the Beatrice and Benedick effect – there’s nothing more likely to make me lose interest in a story faster than a conventional ingenue romance, and nothing more likely to catch my attention than two random people being witty and snarky and apparently undestined for each other.

The best friends and the small character parts are always more interesting than the hero, even when they get almost no story at all.

I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic about the Harry Potter fandom since JK Rowling made her recent pronouncement that she should have got Hermione together with Harry instead of Ron (what, no Harry/Draco love?). I think part of the overwhelming success and expansion of that fandom was that the Harry Potter world was full of characters like that, all these intriguing people with wonderful names who might never have more than six lines of dialogue to themselves.

I always wondered about the secret lives of Madam Pomfrey and Professor Pomona Sprout; my favourite Weasley was Percy; my favourite Slytherin was Pansy Parkinson.

The Discworld is another fantasy world that does this well. Characters might exist as one-note jokes that reoccur in book after book, but sooner or later they’re going to end up revealing a richer life. It’s not the one-off Heroes and Heroines like Victor and Ginger from Moving Pictures who turn up over and over again, taking part in increasingly more complicated storylines that pack an emotional punch. It’s Gaspode the Wonder Dog.

I was a massive Justice League fan in the late 80’s and first half of the 90’s, when pretty much all the ‘big gun’ characters like Batman and Wonder Woman were off in their own books being busy, and the entire super team was made up of characters generally seen as third tier comic relief, rescued from obscurity, or invented out of sheer whimsy: characters like Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Fire and Ice, Guy Gardner, Elongated Man, Power Girl, Crimson Fox, Mister Miracle and Big Barda. They snarked at each other, battled a bunch of embarrassingly incompetent super villains, experimented with get rich quick schemes, and blew up their headquarters a lot. There was one issue devoted entirely to Power Girl’s cat, and another where the British Justice League Embassy was run by Basil Fawlty. I have never loved any comics more. It broke my heart when the JLA was rebooted with those serious, heroic ‘big guns’ back in place.

My own fantasy trilogy The Creature Court was about a whole community of angsty, magic-addicted shape changers, and it was very important to me to use the POV of minor players in the story as well as the big hitters. The whole story revolved around a rigid hierarchy, and I ended up spending a lot of narrative on the Sentinels, who were pretty much the magical equivalent of palace guards. Seeing how much the epic drama affected these ordinary grunts became just as important to me (if not more so) than the Lords of the Court who were fighting the sky every night with their terrible, corrupting magic. The Sentinels were supposed to just be *there* supporting the heroes and instead ended up with POVs and story arcs of their very own.

Left to my own devices, I would happily people an entire novel with wisecracking sidekicks and have no heroes at all. In fact, many of my books sort of end up that way…

Elspeth Cooper
Elspeth Cooper is the author of the Wild Hunt series, Volume 3 of which, THE RAVEN’S SHADOW, is due out from Tor in March 2014. When not writing, she spends her time drinking tea, herding cats and being British. You can find her website here or stalk her on Twitter @ElspethCooper.

Terry Pratchett once said in a radio interview that you had to keep your eye on secondary characters, or they’d take over the show the minute your back was turned.

He was right.

As someone with a very organic, free-range sort of writing process, a.k.a. a pantser, I am intimately acquainted with characters who simply shoulder their way into the narrative, put their feet up on the table and demand to be accommodated.

There are several such individuals in my Wild Hunt series. The first to arrive, and possibly my favourite, was Aysha, the crippled shapeshifter in Songs of the Earth. I adore her: she’s foul-mouthed, stubborn, proud, knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it. In many ways she’s me on my best (worst?) day, and even people who haven’t liked the rest of the book have found praise for her.

It’s always been a source of disappointment to me that there wasn’t much scope to do more with her in these books. She had a role to play and once it was done there was no way I could bring her back. However, I’ve been noodling with an idea for a while now to one day write a standalone novella that covered her back-story, which I never got to explore in the series, just for my own satisfaction. I feel she still has something to say.

One of the other story-invaders was the counter-insurgent Tierce. Another gobby desert woman, funnily enough (I think I’m sensing a pattern here). She wasn’t supposed to have any lines, just be Random Jihadi Number Two who is first through the door in that scene. Then when Gair tackles said Random Jihadi she grabs him by the unmentionables and threatens to geld him.

That was the first inkling I had that she was female. Next thing I knew she was sitting cross-legged on the dinner table, eating dates in an extremely suggestive fashion. She was snarky and in-your-face and she happened so naturally I hadn’t the heart to write her out. As that segment of the book unfolded, I realised it actually needed something a bit more than just a Random Jihadi Number Two to make it sing. On some level I must have known that there was a space in the narrative and she stepped up to fill it.

Tierce’s adventures continue in Book 4 – I like to have minor characters that disappear and reappear rather than just invent a disposable (and ultimately forgettable) redshirt whenever I need another player to pull off a scene. Like Captain Dail, introduced in Songs of the Earth, who gets a brief encore in The Raven’s Shadow, or the Masters Barin and Eavin.

Another secondary character who has far more story than there is room for in the series is Superior Jenara, from the Daughterhouse in El Maqqam. Her history goes right back to the first desert war, and even though I had anticipated her role right from the beginning, she turned out to be a far stronger and more complex individual than the plan required. She stepped right off the page: a determined, no-nonsense single mother with a quietly powerful faith that kept her going through a doomed wartime romance. I could write so much more about her – maybe another novella, set during the desert wars.

Ooh, now there’s an idea…

Margo Lea-Hurwicz
Margo Lea-Hurwiczis a an Anthropology/Gerontology Professor, an avid consumer of Science Fiction/Fantasy, Figure Skating, Tennis & Cardinals’ Baseball

When I was a young girl, long ago and far away, more than a few minor characters caught my interest. Many of them were girls or women, and perhaps because I was a girl, I spent a lot of time wondering about them, making up things they could do later in the story. Sometimes I made up things that I thought must have happened in order for them to end up where they did.

I have been thinking a lot lately about Tysha, Tyrion Lannister’s first wife, a character who appears briefly somewhere in The Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. She has not yet been mentioned in HBO’s very popular Game of Thrones TV show, but I don’t think talking about her will spoil that series (or, I hope) the books for anyone.

We last see Tysha sobbing, clutching torn clothing around her rape-bruised body – and then she is gone in the night. This happens because Tyrion rescues and marries her in secret, and when his father finds out, he has her publicly raped to teach Tyrion a lesson about falling in love with whores. I wonder where Tysha went next. Was she able to keep some of the coin tossed at her while she was being violated? Is she still alive? I know her story reveals a lot about Tyrion’s character, and that it has a profound effect on his subsequent behavior. And while I understand that the purpose of Tysha’s story is to tell us about the Tyrion we have come to know and maybe even have positive feelings for, I am equally (or more) interested in knowing what happened to her. Given the built world into which she was written, I doubt the news is good. But I would like GRRM to write a short story (or POV chapter if she still is alive in his mind) to let me know more. Maybe he has written or will write this chapter. I hope so. But I’m pretty sure it has not yet been published.

I also have been thinking about Renna in the Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett. She appeared only briefly in The Warded Man, promised to Arlen at a very important juncture in his development as a character. Because I have only just started reading The Desert Spear, I don’t know whether Renna will become a more central character later. I do know that she is someone I would like to know more about. She seems to have been left in a dangerous situation. Something quite horrible could happen to her too. I’m hoping that it doesn’t, and that she already has appeared in The Desert Spear or The Daylight War, (or that she will appear in the planned The Skull Throne). But I am not going to look ahead.

I also think about characters who have died (or who appear to have died). Since it is possible to go back in time through various narrative devices, I don’t think it unreasonable to hope (not expect) that authors will provide the backstories of people who no longer appear in the main narrative. For example, I am hoping for more on Lt. Awn, the character who provided a catalyst for the actions of the ship, Justice of Torren, who becomes Breq in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. That is, I am hoping for more background on Lt. Awn in Ancillary Sword or Ancillary Mercy (which I assume will be forthcoming).

In A Song of Ice and Fire, this category (dead in the narrative present with a potentially interesting backstory) could include a number of people, but since Martin occasionally brings the dead back to life, either seemingly literally or by explaining why they never really died in the first place, it is difficult to know who falls into this category.

Jeyne Poole would have come to mind before I finished reading the book in which she reappears. It turns out that she changes from a dead character needing a back story (IMO) to a good example of the previously mentioned kind of character – one who appears minor at first, but then the author shows us is more than minor. As I am hoping that Renna, who was not dead when last I read of her, will appear later on in the Demon Cycle. And as I am hoping that Tyrion and Tysha find each other before the end of A Song of Ice and Fire.

These are only a few examples, from books I have read recently. I am sure I could come up with more if I tried. I want to make a final comment that, since all the stories I use as examples here are ongoing, and I find myself at different points in the list of books that already have been published (or promised) , I cannot be sure that I will not in due time learn more about the characters who have piqued my curiosity. I hope that in this age of instant and widespread communication between authors, reviewers and readers, the authors of these other histories are listening and considering what the readers have to say. Of course, this is not a request that they change the trajectories of their story arcs. “Just” that they fill in around the edges in a short story or chapter, or two – in their copious free time!

Natalie Luhrs
Natalie Luhrs writes about books and culture with a focus on science
fiction, fantasy, and romance at She can also be found on Twitter (@eilatan).

Minor characters are great–they really can add a lot to the story and are often used to propel the plot or just providing additional opportunities for character development. I have a soft spot for minor characters who are clearly the protagonists of their own stories and who, sometimes, end up with their own books. I also like series where the protagonists change between volumes, so a point of view character in one book is a supporting character in subsequent volumes.

So here are a few of my favorites:

  • Kathe in Beth Bernobich’s River of Souls series. Kathe’s great. She may be Ilse’s first friend in Raul Kosenmark’s household but she’s not just there to facilitate Ilse’s character development and I really love that not only does she has goals independent of the main characters of the series but that she also acts on them.
  • Cajeiri in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series. I’m only six books into this series and Cajeiri is still a very minor character at this point (I understand that he becomes a POV character later on) and he’s another avenue through which Cherryh can show how the atevi are different from humans. The negotiation of those differences is one of my favorite things about this series so far and every little bit of information helps.
  • Yeine in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. I know, I know–you’re all saying, “But she is a main character!” She sure is–in the first book. In the second and third books, she takes a back seat to Oree and Sieh–and I thought about making this same argument about Sieh, who is a supporting character in the first two books. I really enjoy series where there are different POV characters for each volume because, for me, it makes the world of the book feel less like a set piece and more like a real place.
  • Ivan Vorpatril from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. Initially a foil for Miles Vorkosigan, Ivan is a pretty awesome character in and of himself. Consistently underestimated by everyone, he’s just as smart as his more flamboyant cousin and manages to save the day on more than one occasion.
Julia Rios
Julia Rios is a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. She hosts the Outer Alliance Podcast (celebrating QUILTBAG speculative fiction), is a regular of The Skiffy and Fanty Show (a general science fiction and fantasy discussion podcast), and has narrated stories for Podcastle and Pseudopod, and poems for the Strange Horizons Podcast. She’s also one of the three fiction editors at Strange Horizons, and her own writing has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and several other places.

Mallory the intersex necromancer from Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. Those books are all about the ensemble cast already, which I love, but Mallory is such a fascinating person–obviously super attractive to most everyone, and the text indicates a lot of complexity and depth beyond the surface. I’d love to see a whole story devoted to that character.

Samwise Gamgee and Rosie Cotton from the Lord of the Rings. I think the movies give Sam a little more attention than the books do, but I find his loyalty to and love for Frodo touching, and I can’t help wondering what things are like from his point of view after he comes home from that adventure. I also really wonder what life is like for his wife, Rosie, who hasn’t gone away and experienced those great and terrible things, but who has to live with someone who has.

Queen Bess as presented in Hark, A Vagrant by Kate Beaton. Okay, so, this isn’t a novel, but one of my favorite Hark, A Vagrant strips is Queen Bess at Tilbury, where we learn that the Spanish Armada obviously has no chance against Queen Elizabeth I and her formidable wingspan (to say nothing of her fearsome left hook). I would dearly love to see a whole novel devoted to flying Queen Bess.

Parvati and Padma Patil from the Harry Potter books. I heard Cecilia Tan talk once about people of color cosplaying as Hogwarts students, and how some of them had told her they felt like they were comfortable doing it because in J.K. Rowling’s world wizards and witches of color existed in the text. I thought that was a very cool thing, and I would love to see some stories from the point of view of people of color in the wizarding world. I chose the Patil twins particularly, because I find it fascinating that they ended up in two different houses, when the common perception of identical twins is that they tend to share almost everything. I wonder what their life is like outside of Hogwarts, and what the school experience was like for them.

Natania Barron
Natania Barron is a writer with a penchant for the speculative; she is also an unrepentant geek. Her work has appeared in Weird Tales, EscapePod, The Gatehouse Gazette, Thaumatrope, Bull Spec, Crossed Genres, Steampunk Tales, Faerie Magazine, and in anthologies. She is also the founder of The Outer Alliance, a group dedicated to queer advocacy in speculative fiction. Recently, she joined the Bull Spec crew as a fiction editor. Her debut novel, Pilgrim of the Sky, released in December 2011 from Candlemark & Gleam. In addition, Natania is a founding editor and creative and web director at GeekMom.

I’ve always had a thing for the second string. The gravedigger in Hamlet. The Greyjoys. Gindelwald. Eowyn. Mrs. Who. Mrs. Whatsit. Mrs. Which. And the Questing Beast. In fact, the Questing Beast might be the ultimate minor character–a symbol of the possibilities left in the margins. In T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a novel that may be my favorite if I had to choose (like, in a life and death situation), King Pellinore weaves in and out while chasing the Questing Beast. I love that his storyline comes from medieval texts–and his quest is later taken on by my other favorite minor character, the Saracen Sir Palomedes–but White tries to make sense of it. Pellinore has his own story, of course. He is a King, after all. But he’s memorable (heck, he even made it into the musical). When the Questing Beast is inherited by Palomedes who, in the context of Arthur’s England is still a bit baffling, it makes an odd sort of sense. You just have to know how a Saracen made it to England. It opens up so many questions, and finding those answers is what I spent most of my graduate studies trying to find out.

Sure, the Questing Beast remains a curious literary shortcut that, quite simply says, “There’s a whole lot more story here. But you’ve got to make it up.” And maybe it’s better that way. I suppose that’s what storytelling is about. It’s about all those decisions, all those pathways. You can chase the Questing Beast or you can follow the hero. And sometimes your Questing Beast might end up being someone else’s hero. (Or, if you’re someone like Lev Grossman, you take a minor character like Julia Wicker and weave her right back in–in a heartbreaking, meaningful way you never expected.)

I write quite a few Questing Beasts into my novels, and none so much as in Pilgrim of the Sky. When you’re writing about demigods and godlings, it just begs for backstory. I had quite a few readers take notice of a supporting character, Joss Raddick, in the novel. He’s the godling of water, a sort of Poseidon creature, that’s tall, dark-eyed, and white-haired. And ripped. But also boisterous, whisky quaffing, and wise. In fact, I’d go so far to say he had his own little following. Hints are dropped as to his background, but it wasn’t something I thought about in-depth. But then some seeds were planted. And they started germinating. And before I knew it, I realized this godling of the sea was just begging me to have his story told. Not just part of it. His origin story. So, I let him. I knew I was going to write a followup to the first book, but I certainly never anticipated it would be Joss’s story. I will say, that adventure–following him across the sea, down to the depths, and deep into the heart of what it means to be human (and part god)–was both unexpected and unusual.

I guess that’s what you get for following Questing Beasts, right?

Elizabeth May
Author and Photographer Elizabeth May currently resides in Edinburgh, Scotland, with her husband. THE FALCONER is her début novel. For more information, follow her on Twitter @_ElizabethMay or visit her website

What minor characters in novels and stories have caught your interest, and want to know more about?

I’m always interested to know the stories of villains. They’re often a huge, driving influence on the course of the story and the main character – but because most stories focus on the protagonist’s journey, the villain’s own character arc is either not depicted or relegated to back story. Being an avid reader of fairy tales and folk tales, I always wanted to learn more about the wicked step mothers and the evil witches and how they were raised and how they were broken. And I think the interest in villain stories is picking up steam with larger audiences – from fairy tale retellings like Maleficent to Snow White – because these characters are so fascinating in how they’re portrayed. They’re incredibly ruthless toward the main characters, but very little is known about their motivations and where they come from. There’s a lot of potential for reframing the original story to create more context there.

What characters in your own work have gathered unexpected interest, and you’d like to write from their point of view?

In expanding with the above idea, I’d love to write from the point of view of Sorcha, the villainess in The Falconer. When I first began writing the story, my protagonist Aileana simply had the loudest voice, so I made the creative decision to write the novel from 1st person perspective. It wasn’t until later that the limitations of that decision became a bit frustrating for me. As much as I love telling the story from her perspective, it makes it a great deal more difficult to share the full scope of Sorcha’s back story – because as the villain and the individual who murdered my heroine’s mother, there’s little opportunity to expand her role because everything is being told from Aileana’s point of view. But I do have a back story for Sorcha. It’s a great, incredibly long back story that simply wouldn’t fit in the main trilogy because this isn’t Sorcha’s story. And I’d love to write it one day.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

3 Comments on MIND MELD: Secondary Characters Who Take Center Stage

  1. A couple of examples that aren’t SF/F — Hannibal Lecter from Red Dragon/Silence of the Lambs and Agent Pendergast from the Preston/Child series that begins with The Relic.

    Interestingly, in both cases they were secondary characters who kind of muscled their way to the forefront in subsequent books, and who probably would’ve been better served by remaining as secondary characters.

  2. Does Y.T. from Snow Crash count as a secondary character? If Stephenson somehow ended up as a series writer, it sure would have been fun to follow that character through a few more adventures.

    Might say the same thing about Reamde’s D-Squared and Skeletor. That duo would make an interesting spinoff. Such great characters drawn in such (relatively) short time.

  3. Paul Connelly // February 12, 2014 at 6:47 pm //

    In the Harry Potter series, the best secondary character by far has to be Luna Lovegood. She rocks! And Fred and George Weasley had the coolness factor nailed.

    In Lord of the Rings (the books, that is–haven’t seen the movies), Galadriel doesn’t appear on all that many pages but she is without question the coolest character: powerful, wise, beautiful, scary, but humane, and with always a bit of mystery about her.

    I’ve gotten quite fond of Gorbel in P. C. Hodgell’s Kencyrath books–anyone else would write a character like that as a Draco Malfoy-ish villain, but Hodgell flips the stereotype around and makes him, while still decidedly non-heroic, basically a good egg.

    I liked Nazca Barsavi in The Lies of Locke Lamora, but she wasn’t in the story for as long as I would’ve liked.

    An old, old favorite is the priest, Henry Marapper, from Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (or Starship, in the US). Who else would criticize someone by saying, “There’s something horribly sincere about that man!”

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