Balancing peripheral characters with main characters ~ or how to stop Sideshow Bob murdering Bart Simpson.

Balancing peripheral characters with main characters ~ or how to stop Sideshow Bob murdering Bart Simpson.



One of the few novels I never actually finished was Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I was set it over Easter in my final year at university, as a part of my course entitled, “The Art of the Novel”. I forced myself to read a quarter of it, got bogged down and in the end got my flatmate to read it for me and give me a précis later. She very kindly did so, but it was all wasted when I got to the first tutorial and my tutor (in free-fall into a nervous breakdown) gave us a bright and brittle smile, said, “Right, you all read Anna Karenina, didn’t you?” and things went downhill from then on.

My problem with the novel was a combination of the three-course dinner that was every name and the sheer number of characters. I simply couldn’t cope with bonding with that many; I needed to know who was the main character(s) and tune out the rest. It’s one of the reasons why I often struggle with fantasy, particularly the epic style fantasy with a cast of thousands and a long list of who everyone is and how they relate to each other. I’ve also found a great deal of it is cardboard cut-out writing, where a character is generated by a need for certain qualities and that is really all they bring to the story. You don’t often get a sense of who that person truly is and what brought them to that point; seldom do you get a feeling that their story has an entire book or two’s worth of living to explore. They’re not real people, they’re something created for a purpose.

I have a head full of imaginary friends, and if truth be told, they’re often more vivid at times than many of my “real” friends. Like the “real” people in my life, I often know a great deal about some and less about others, but it’s not unusual to find one steps forward and reveals a snapshot of their back-story. With real life friends, it’s not unusual to discover extraordinary things about them many years into the relationship, things you have often had a kind of background awareness of but never really discussed. For example, I was aware of one friend’s army family upbringing but until recently I never knew she’d been born in the Far East. That brings a whole new dimension to an already interesting person.

It can be the same with the people in my head. Usually the main characters of a story are familiar to me, old friends if you like. But the others are often not so well known to me, friends of friends perhaps and I can be aware of them living their lives just beyond my inner sight and yet not closely aware of the particulars of their deepest workings. Then one day, they do or say something that I hadn’t been aware I knew about.

When that happens, I usually step back and take another look at them.

In my novel Strangers and Pilgrims, one of the six main characters Gareth has an older sister who steps into try and help him out of his breakdown. A number of folks have said they wanted to know more about Angela Forester, because though she only appears in a short section of the book, she made an impression strong enough for readers to want to know more about her. She’s a peripheral character in two other novels (as yet unpublished) and I am beginning to think she might just have a story to tell me of her own.

Likewise, Isobel from Away With The Fairies started out as best supporting actress in another novel, due to be published this year. She popped up in the story as a very vivid sidekick to the main character about two thirds through the story. She caught my interest.

This is where the problems can begin. A peripheral character can sometimes sing a siren song, like an intriguing new lover, enticing you to divert the attention, the flow of the story and entirely hijack the key role. They might start to seem more interesting to you, the writer, than the main character you have been bonded at the hip with for so long.

I have some advice for you if this happens. Simply this: DON’T PANIC. It happens to most writers at some time and in all honesty, it needs to. This is the internally generated inspiration a good writer needs. Your first move, once you become aware of what is happening, is to step back a little. Go and spend some time with this pushy peripheral and talk to them. Take them out for a coffee, but make sure they know this is NOT a date. Let them fill you in on their life, on who they are and what they want, and also why they have appeared in this novel. Take notes, listen attentively, and when they’ve told you enough to be going on with, make a deal with them. Tell them that you’ll write more about them. Tell them they’ll maybe get their own novel to star in. But also tell them not now, not this novel. Be patient and wait their turn and you’ll get onto it as soon as you can and then you will do them proud. Ask them, are they content to try and steal the stage from someone else, or would they rather have the chance to be the star from the start?

This usually works very well. The upstart becomes much more manageable and the information they’ve given you about themselves adds depth and richness to the story and the main character. You don’t need to tell the reader very much about it; it tends to be enough that you know and a kind of ghostly hologram appears, a kind of signature that is often the marker that makes readers say, “I’d like to know more about X,” rather than the bewilderment they might feel if X has totally usurped the storyline from your star. The bonus of it is that you now have your next star on-side, co-operative and bursting to get started working with you.

However, not all peripherals are actually the same. It’s easy as a writer to get sidetracked and obsessed by the need to populate the background of a novel with convincing portraits of people, to give it colour and depth. It’s a little like trying to paint a crowd scene. If you watched the trilogy of films of Lord of the Rings, the vast armies of both sides were very cleverly presented. Panoramic shots of orc hordes in their tens of thousands juxtaposed with rapid close ups of the ranks, showing the astonishing range of differences between not only tribes of orcs but individuals within it. It gave a powerful impression of both the scale of an army and the nature of the individuals within it. But let’s face it, none of us wants to see shot after shot of orcs like mugshots, regiment after regiment of perfectly coiffed elves,going on for ten or more minutes, do we? It’s enough that we know they’re all there and it’s the same with writing. You don’t need to describe everyone in the park in detail; you use the same technique, brief panoramic overview, a few vivid details and it’s enough. It’s not dissimilar to the techniques of Impressionist painting. In our striving for reality in writing it’s tempting to get so focused on details that we forget we are really trying to create the bigger picture. Not every peripheral character needs to be any more than that.

My final thought is that just as you get to know the people in your life, and their lives ebb and flow in harmony with yours (or not!) it’s important to get to know the people in your head, your “imaginary friends” better. This is not about mapping out character details, like a shopping list, but allowing themselves to reveal themselves organically, just as people in real life do. You can’t know everything about them consciously, but unconsciously you do. So trust the process and let them talk to you and let the new stars step forth shyly (or boldly) to conquer their world.

This article first appeared at Thea Atkinson’s blog. Do check her out; she has a fabulous range of dark fiction and a brand new YA title out.



2 thoughts on “Balancing peripheral characters with main characters ~ or how to stop Sideshow Bob murdering Bart Simpson.

  1. I’m having this problem with reading Skies of Pern. McCaffery was good untill so many new characters got thrown in. Who’s the story about anymore I was wondering. Stll a good read, but more people to know than are in my real life.


  2. I know exactly what you mean. It’s so exciting when you discover something new about a character you created. And my current ‘Local’ series of crime novels is constructed around the idea of taking minor characters from one story and giving them the lead role in the next one. So far, it’s working well for me at least!


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