Thursday, September 26, 2013

The First-Person Novel, Part II: Creating Depth in Secondary Characters

So you know that the main character is the protagonist and his or her nemesis is the antagonist. Do you know what the second main character is called? Most of us refer to this person as the sidekick, but it turns out, he/she is technically referred to as the deuteragonist (I had to look this up, I don't know about you.) More importantly, in a first-person novel, it's easy for this character to come across as one-dimensional.

Here we continue our discussion of the first-person novel.

I have learned that in first-person, it's easy for the story to become more of a mystery and less of a thriller. The reader is seeking resolution to a dilemna alongside a single character and thus lacks the total picture of what is happening overall in the story. If done well, this can still be thrilling, and the mystery can add to your story.

But this comes with a price tag. On top of the pitfall of protagonist narcissism, it's easy for other characters to come across as stereotypes. We don't witness their perspectives or the thoughts behind their actions. We don't know anything about their peripheral actions, those that don't directly relate to the protagonist. Maybe the bad guy was lovingly tending to his quadriplegic child before building that bomb, but we, the readers, will never know that.

But there are ways to get around this issue. For one thing, characters can be fleshed out in dialogue. Instead of learning of an antagonist's motive through his inner monologue, the reader can learn of it through his conversation with another bad guy or with our hero. This is something that takes a little finesse, because the dialogue has to come across as realistic and not just as an info-dumping opportunity for the bad guy to tell the reader about himself. Don't pull a "so you see...I'm going to put you in this easily escapable trap and explain to you exactly what I have done up to this point, so that you may escape and foil my crimes! Muahahahahahaha!" That's bad. Very bad.

Instead, put the bad guy in a situation where we can see his humanity. I used the quadriplegic child example above because I recently re-watched "Extreme Measures." In this flick (which I thought was pretty good, as a scientist and thriller lover...) the bad guys are converted from stereotypical murdering goons into sympathetic, real people. And it only takes two scenes totaling about one minute each. Because we see that their motive is from the heart. I like that. But it can't be done in the first person.

So a lot of authors mix in third-person sections within the first-person novel. I'm a little on the fence about this approach and haven't used it to date. I think if done well, the third-person pieces can add depth to the story. But in many cases, they do come across as just an opportunity for an author to tell you something you need to know in order to understand what's going on. And because they bring you out of the POV to which you have grown accustomed, they can sometimes cause some jarring transitions. That said, I'm considering forging down this path in my third book.

Last, while we can diverge a bit from the "show, don't tell" rule with the protagonist, this technique is critical in developing secondary characters. You can't hear a character's frustration through her inner monologue, but you can figure out that she is frustrated when she bursts into tears and throws something across the room. You may think that the bad guy is a heartless, murdering goon, but what if he hesitates for a moment before pulling the trigger? Of course, the protagonist's role in this scenario is to witness the event.

How do you create depth in your secondary characters?


  1. This is helpful. Usually, we read about how to develop character in general and tend to gear the advice to our protagonist. I appreciate the reminder about developing the secondary characters and how to do it when the story is written from the primary character's point of view. I had a reader tell me my climax didn't contain the "Wow" factor because there was too little investment in the bad guy's character in the story. You have given some good tips about how to create a secondary character the reader will know. Thank you from a struggling first-time novelist.

    1. Thanks Joyce! I'm glad you found it useful. There are a ton of similar posts on this site, if you scroll through the labels to your left :) Enjoy, -Kris