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There is an old saying that, “Every person is the hero in his own story.” In writing fiction, every character is the protagonist in his own story, or at least he thinks he is the protagonist. To create believable characters, we have to respect the characters. This matters for our protagonists. This matters for our antagonists. And it even matters for those side characters we plan to kill off on the next page “off-screen.”
To properly respect a character, we ought to know at least a little about them. We ought to know their name as a first step. That doesn’t mean that it has to be used in the story, but we ought to respect the character that much. Our protagonist is walking down the street and happens to notice an odd sort of fellow who is wearing a purple Robin Hood-style hat with a green feather? The reader doesn’t necessarily have to know his name is Fulgencio Z. Buffalobreath, or that his name at birth was John Smith, but he changed to to be more distinctive, but the author should know that.
In Moby Dick, Melville has one line referring to Captain Ahab’s wife, if memory serves. A modern female author got to wondering about this smallest of side characters and wrote a book about her. That is what any author should be able to do for any minor character they have created.
Now, let’s look at a specific situation I mentioned above. You have some disposable character you’re going to kill off to put your protagonist(s) into a situation or to show how bad the bad guys are. Unnamed character #1’s being killed off does not have the same impact as Chief James Scuffer of the United States’ Navy’s being killed off. It doesn’t have the same effect on you, the author. It doesn’t have the same effect on your readers. Invest enough in your victims to at least give them a name, and probably to share it with your readers. Chief Scuffer will appreciate it. Trust me.
Are there any side characters from fiction whom you have encountered where you would like to know more about their story? Are there any peripheral characters whose name you would have liked to know? Have you seen this done well? Have you seen it done poorly? What do you think of the advice, Ricochet?Published in