Reprise: Secondary Character Exercise: Someone Else’s Story

Originally posted January 27, 2010.

One of the biggest problems people often see with secondary characters is when their creator doesn’t take much of an interest in them. I’m not saying they suddenly need to steal the story, but it helps to spend a little time in their heads, make them more than just caricatures on the page. Empathize with them, if nothing else.

For many, the reason why this happens is being focused on the characters at the center of the action, to the exclusions of the ones outside. In stories, it results in a main character who’s lovingly detailed and a surrounding cast who may as well be just the sum of their ability to make the main character’s life easier. In a game, it results in NPCs who are little more than tools or deployable weapons. And in both cases, the antagonist exists solely as a target for the awesomeness of the main characters. It might work in a beer and pretzels game, but when people are looking to be engaged on an IC level, it’s likelier to hamper than help.

Which brings me to today’s exercise. Look over your plot—story, game, whatever, and pick yourself one secondary character. Any secondary character. Now imagine, for a moment, that the story is about her, and the main character is just another member of the supporting cast. Then write a plot synopsis for the story as it would look through that perspective, novel cover blurb style.

What does this get you?

First, it gives you a chance to look at the character’s arc. In some cases it makes sense for it to be centered around the main characters, but in most, you don’t want it to be completely focused; doesn’t this character have a life beyond what can be put in terms of this single other person she might not even have known a year ago? (For that matter, there’s how she feels about the main character—if you do this for a number of characters, and they all feel the same way, you might have a problem.) And if they’re doing something sort of on their own, that gives you a chance to look at the world in a way you might not have if you focused on the main character.

This has its own uses if you’re doing this for a game and the character you’re using is an ally NPC, particularly if she’s one of those ones the group asks for favors a lot. After all, it’s the perfect chance to come up with something that she could have as a price, instead of just smiling and nodding and taking care of what’s needed—or at least to figure out why she’s just giving it to them.

And when you’re dealing with a villain, particularly if you’re a writer and very fond of your main character, it gives her a lot more punch. After all, you can’t have a story without an antagonist, and many people read for the villains. And hey, you’re a lot more likely to give a villain a proper ending rather than Death By Stupidity if you’ve spent a little while in her armor trying to figure out why her opponent keeps outmaneuvering her at every turn, right?

So try a blurb, and see what it gets you. Even if you don’t learn something new, sometimes just writing the cheesy novel-style blurb can cheer you up in its own right.

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