As long as I can remember, I’ve loved supporting casts more than main characters.
Lord of the Rings? Legolas. Star Wars? Wedge. Ghostbusters? Winston. Babylon 5? Marcus & Lyta. But why … ?
I think the main reason is that the supporting cast often get to have more fun. They’re not carrying the weight of the narrative in the same way as the main guys & gals, so are free to be funny, badass or insightful as demanded.
Main characters, by contrast, have to be careful what they say and do. Their actions warp the world (and the narrative). If Luke Skywalker never misses a shot, where’s the drama? Wedge can splash TIEs all day.
(Possibly there’s a split between those of us who love supporting characters and those who idolise protagonists? Might say something profound about our instinctive appraisal of where we sit in life? Who knows?)
Part of the Toolkit
As a writer, it’s fun to have characters who aren’t trapped by narrative. They’re an opportunity for jokes, saves & stand-out moments. That’s probably why Legacy of Ash has so many characters close to the action, but not always part of it.
Kurkas, Revekah, Anastacia, Apara – maybe Rosa, definitely Sevaka … They get to shine and be awesome in their own way, without consideration of what’s going on with Viktor, Josiri, Calenne and Melanna.
But you know what? The nature of epics is that even secondary characters earn their time in the spotlight – when the world turns on their deeds. To act, to paraphrase Viktor, upon that chance when the moment comes.
A Delicate Balance
This is a dilemma that strikes at the heart of #LegacyofSteel, where some of the aforementioned characters stop being agents in other peoples’ stories, and claim a part in their own. At least for a while.
It’s a tricky act to balance, as a re-watch of the #PiratesoftheCarribean movies shows. The closer Jack Sparrow is to a protagonist, the worse the film. He’s a great hand grenade to throw into the plot, if it’s not his plot.
Jack Sparrow’s just too … Jack Sparrow to lead a solid narrative. On the other hand, if you strip his iconic characteristics away, he’s not Jack Sparrow any longer. For better or worse, this is a dilemma for any promoted secondary character.
So how to avoid falling into the trap? Part of it’s making sure that when a secondary character moonlights as a protagonist, it’s due to previously established traits or character beats.
A sense of honour or duty, perhaps. A desire for revenge. A piece of the (established – this is important) past come back to haunt them in the present. Something so inevitable that the shift never jars the audience. Same character, altered circumstances.
Beyond that, aspirant characters change to match their circumstances, but can never be aware they’ve done so. Oddball characteristics soften just enough. Jokes, courage and selfishness alter with introspection.
Cometh the hour, cometh the character, and all that. For their moment in the spotlight, your secondary character knows that the world turns on them and maybe (the horror!) experiences growth.
Done right, your secondary character takes the weight of the narrative & gives it a good & necessary shove. After? Maybe they fade away into their old selves, die or even join the ranks of the protagonists in perpetuity.
But they must never, ever lose the traits that the audience loved to begin with. Better to reign in Secondary Character Hell than be trapped serving an unhappy role in Protagonist Heaven.
Do I get this right? I like to think so. The only way for you to know is to dive into the Legacy Trilogy yourself. #LegacyofAsh is available now. #LegacyofSteel lands this November.
LEGACY OF ASH (available now)
A shadow has fallen over the Tressian Republic.
Ruling families plot against one another with sharp words and sharper knives, heedless of the threat posed by the invading armies of the Hadari Empire.
The Republic faces its darkest hour. Yet as Tressia falls, heroes rise.
‘A hugely entertaining debut’ John Gwynne
LEGACY OF STEEL (pre-order)
A year has passed since an unlikely alliance saved the Tressian Republic from fire and darkness – at great cost. Thousands perished, and Viktor Akadra – the Republic’s champion – has disappeared.
While the ruling council struggles to mend old wounds, other factions sense opportunity. The insidious Parliament of Crows schemes in the shadows, while to the east the Hadari Emperor gathers his armies. As turmoil spreads across the Republic, its ripples are felt in the realms of the divine.
War is coming… and this time the gods themselves will take sides