#99: Developing a Supporting Cast

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

How do I figure out which supporting characters need to be in my story? I’ve read oodles of articles about the importance of secondary characters, how they drive the plot and reveal important things about the protagonist, but none about how to figure out who those characters are in the first place.

My protagonist starts out very much alone—recently discharged from the military and estranged from her family of origin. Over the course of the story, she builds a support network for herself. Some of that will be people who are new to her life; others are people who were already there, but she didn’t realize she could rely on them.

There are quite a lot of ideas that I want to explore in the story, though I’m not sure how many will make it to the final draft. Here’s a short list:

  • the control that money exerts over our lives
  • family, community, and accepting support
  • coming to terms with your own weaknesses and those of others
  • trauma and recovery
  • openness and acceptance as the antidote to shame
  • the importance of telling your own story

I have a solid sense of who the protagonist is as a solitary person, but I don’t know who the people around her are. Who are her friends? Her coworkers? It’s such a broad question that I’m not sure where to start.

—Who’s Next? (he/him)

Dear Who’s Next?,

This is a great question! And you’ve already got the beginning of your answer to it. Just as protagonists in some ways embody the Big Idea of your story, supporting characters are often avatars of those themes you mentioned, as well as vehicles for tone. When you’re looking at the push-pull of plot momentum, supporting characters can provide both the push and the pull. And a well-rounded cast will do a lot to fill out your setting.

Continue reading

#81: Your Writing Is Enough

Dear Story Nurse,

I just read your post on original ideas and the derivative nature of all stories, and loved it. I struggle a lot with feeling like I’m writing “unique enough” stories to justify putting the effort into them (it doesn’t help that I can literally go through my folder of ideas/snippets/starters and pinpoint exactly what I must have been reading/watching when I came up with each idea, so I wind up feeling like obviously anyone else would notice it too—even though logically I’m fairly sure it’s not that obvious and I only notice it because it’s my own stuff).

But in similar vein… how do you create unique, original worldbuilding? The hardest part for me is magic systems—I write almost exclusively fantasy, sometimes scifi with fantasy elements—and I love including magic and witches and sorcerers, but I feel like I can’t create a unique, exciting magic system to save my life.

The example I always go back to is the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve never seen anything remotely like the magic system in that setting, allomancy (for those who haven’t read it, some people can ingest different alloys of metals and use those to fuel various mental and physical powers; all the powers come in pairs, like Soothing vs. Rioting people’s emotions). If I could hit on something that unique, that original, just once in my life, I would be thrilled. But in the end, most of my magic systems are either bog-standard elemental-based types of things, or more generic “magic just does what you need it to do, albeit in limited quantities or with skill requirements to make it work so it’s not a complete deus ex machina device” a la D&D.

You say that “originality doesn’t mean rubbing two brain cells together until they spark an idea that bears no resemblance to any idea that anyone’s ever had” but on the other hand it feels like, in this area of things, it does mean basically that—and I’m not sure the “file off the serial numbers” approach would work, if only because if you take a particularly interesting existing system (like allomancy) for your “base” to work from, I think it would still be pretty obvious. How can I either figure out how to spark unique ideas for magic systems, or stop beating myself up for not being able to come up with entirely new, unique, original magic systems for my worlds?

—Jadelyn (they/them)

Dear Jadelyn,

I love this question as a counterpart to the question about worldbuilding from real places. There are so many ways to approach the creation of a fictional place.

As I said in my post on originality, what makes your work original is that you make unique choices that no one else would make. It sounds like that’s where you’re feeling stuck—you know your worldbuilding choices are yours, but feel that they’re not “unique enough”. Instead of looking at the word unique (or original, though those aren’t the same thing), let’s look at the word enough.

Continue reading

#79: Ethical Worldbuilding from Real Places

Dear Story Nurse,

I have an idea for a novel I’m really excited about, but I’ve got overwhelmed by some of the world/character building.

The basic idea is a take-off on a Swords and Sorcery fantasy where, because of the availability of magic, technological development has stalled, and society has become a magocracy. The story then follows a group of inventors who create and spread non-magical technology. The things they actually invent are based on real history of science, but I’ve selected things by a combination of what makes sense with my world building and things I think are cool. It’s going to end up a very anachronistic mix, but it’s also a fairly self-indulgent fantasy story, not historical fiction, so I’m not worried about that. Just in case it’s relevant, currently the plan is that most of the story would take place in a big diverse port city where people are coming and going from around the world, but it’s early days and that may change.

Even though it’s strictly secondary world fantasy the bits of real history of science come from specific places which I would like to carry over into my characters and world building and I’m stuck on how to do that.

So that I have a concrete example, one of the things I know I want to include is the invention of the printing press, which is originally Chinese in real life. The bit I’m having trouble with is coding my printing press inventor from China-inspired-fantasy-land as Chinese in a way that gets the point across without being appropriative. I’m really struggling to figure out what sort of details are good for world-building, vs what is not, how much I can trust my readers to pick up, and generally (especially given there’s a lot of anachronism in my world already) identifying the boundary between diverse world-building and smearing bits of other people’s cultures around willy-nilly.

My printer is one of my better developed characters (I’m still fairly early in the planning stages of this), but I’m seeking general advice for all my non-European characters. Please help me escape the ‘everyone’s from Britain but with the names changed’ fantasy trap.

—Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

That sounds like a very cool project. I understand your concerns about appropriation, especially when you’re working with multiple cultures and doing what amounts to a cultural mash-up. Fortunately, people of color and others with relevant experience have created some great resources on cultural appropriation and cultural sensitivity in writing, and I’m glad to bring some of them together for you.

Continue reading

#78: How Much Should Your Research Show?

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m in the planning phases of a time travel short story, and I find myself wondering how much research is too much. What’s a good way to find the line between authenticity and overdoing it?

—ASB (he/him)

Dear ASB,

There are two people for whom research might be “too much”: you, and your reader. For you, it’s too much if it prevents you from writing, or if your investment in research outweighs its return. For your reader, it’s too much if it it prevents them from enjoying the story.

Continue reading

#49: When Settings Are Fun and Stories Are Hard

Dear Story Nurse,

I love developing settings, but once I have my stage set, I find I have no idea what to do with the characters. Unless I force myself with NaNoWriMo or a similar challenge—and even then, I don’t often like what I came up with—my inclination is to circle the worldbuilding stages forever. For example, my current project is geography-focused, because I’ve been having a lot of fun researching historical cartography. I have kind of a unifying myth for my island nation, and now I want to explore this space through the lives of the people living in it, but I can’t seem to make a story happen. How can I come up with ideas when that’s not the part of the process that interests me?

Thanks!

—Masamage (she/her)

Dear Masamage,

When I first read your letter, I thought I’d answered it before, or one very like it. I looked through my archives and realized I was thinking of these letters from writers who find world-building easy and character development hard. You’re in a similar position, but facing a different challenge (though my response to them may still be of some use to you).

Continue reading

#35: Making Side Characters Feel Real

Dear Story Nurse,

Once again I’m looking back at a first draft and making notes of what needs fixing. It’s my usual list: Slow down, set the scene, connect things better, and fill out the ancillary characters. It’s the last one that I continue to find the hardest, particularly in my longer fiction. (In this case a near-future science fiction novel.)

My main characters are generally good, each having their own full and distinct personality and voice. But my supporting characters, the ones who reoccur occasionally to help move the story along, are all the same generic piece of furniture, saying or doing only what is necessary to further the story. They usually embody some specific purpose. (The Informer, the Boss, the Scientist, etc.) I feel like it’s important to make these characters distinct for the benefit of the reader. If the character has been off page for several (or many) chapters, I’d like the reader to recall their value without too much prompting. These characters also tend to be the third (or fourth or fifth) person in the room, and giving them a distinct presence can help calm the mayhem of group scenes.

Since they aren’t main characters, I don’t want to spend too much page time developing them, so I feel the pull to draw from familiar clichés. (The sniveling Informer, the clueless Boss, the Scientist with bad social skills, etc.) But applying broad clichés doesn’t really do any favors to me, my readers, or the characters themselves.

On the other hand, when I sit down and give them all the consideration of a main character, they get away from me, doing all kinds of things. I love that behavior in my mains, but it’s downright rude of my supporting characters since it’s not particularly… uh… supportive.

How can I balance all of these competing forces to best serve the story and the reader?

—Ancillary Justice (they/them)

Dear Ancillary Justice,

There’s a broad range between “plot furniture” and “side character gets uppity, wants to be the protagonist.” I think you can aim for somewhere in the middle of that range and have it work out well, as long as you have the writerly discipline to keep your characters in line. Or you can develop side characters as embodiments of the setting, which will probably serve your books better in the long run.

Continue reading