The Pantser Body of Knowledge: the Lesser Lights

Minor characters, we loves them we does. Particularly with ketchup.

Oh, not the redshirts, at least, not only the redshirts. Fine, yes, I do enjoy redshirting people who irritate me.

So, you’re going to be running into any number of minor characters through the course of the story, everything from the fellow who sells you overpriced drinks at that fancy resort to your favorite bartender in the grimy dive you usually frequent. Oh? Sorry. My subconscious seems to live in Evil Bastard Central, and that place has more grimy dives than a mud wrestling competition.

At any rate, minor characters typically fall into a few broad categories, whether you’re a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between. There’s your named minors, usually people who have some kind of importance to what your majors are doing – the hero’s valet, the villain’s favorite general, the bartender the hero pours out his woes to… These guys will serve multiple roles so that you don’t overload the poor reader with seven hundred names in as many sentences, and you’ll usually flag them with a reminder like “the leader of the elvish ghosts I enslaved”, just so the reader doesn’t need to scootch back forty pages to the last time said character made an appearance. The risk to pantsers is that the named minors can very easily take on their own life and take over your story. More on that later.

Unnamed minors usually get a distinguishing ‘flag’ of some sort. The one-legged beggar, the short (or tall) guard, that hot redhead down at the bar (I think my subconscious is thirsty). They’re generally functional bits that serve a purpose but are mostly forgotten as soon as they’re out of sight.

Then there’s the local color – these aren’t usually characterized as individuals, but as groups, and mostly show up when the story is playing tour guide. They help to fill out the sense of a world beyond what the main characters see, and a culture that isn’t ours. Of course, they, like all the other minor character categories frequently end up in the final one I use…

The corpse. Yes, corpses can have character. If it’s hot and there’s no refrigeration, rather a lot of it, and quite robust. The thing is, the corpses serve multiple purposes too, and that’s apart from the value as future fertilizer. The state of a body tells your main something about how it got to be one. If it’s upright and walking around, there’s probably a necromancer somewhere nearby. Recently roasted, you start looking for anything that’s combustible. Lots of bodies and blood, you’re probably looking at a war zone or a very enthusiastic group of bandits.

Naturally, the easiest way to deal with a named minor who tries to take over is to make arrangements for him, her, or it to become a corpse. That isn’t always possible. Sometimes it turns out – particularly if you live in extreme pantser pants – that the person you thought was a named minor character is actually one of your mains. This can be traumatic, and in extreme cases lead to the Epic With Everything.

The way I see it, if this happens to you, you can go one of three directions. You can roll with it, see where it takes you, and clean up the mess when revision time happens. Alternatively, you can promise the uppity named minor his/her/its own book later, conditional on good behavior now. The third option is the corpse – which can also serve as a warning to any other minor characters with Ideas.

Yes, I know. This is a problem pantsers have. Our characters feel so much like real, independent beings to us that we think and speak of them that way. So long as you know which universe has the feet and the bills you’ve got to pay, it doesn’t matter, not even when your subconscious has a bar tab spanning the entire multiverse of your imagination. That one only comes due in the form of “you will write this story now”, which isn’t too much of a problem unless you’re being paid to do something else now (Welcome to my life, by the way).

A final word on corpses. Don’t be scared of them. Your writing will be a lot stronger if the dead bodies mean something to your hero (they usually mean something to your villain, typically “that’s that nuisance dealt with”). Offing your hero’s best friend has much more emotional kick than some random stranger who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Offing his puppy… well, you’re just a bastard author with godlike powers of manipulating events, aren’t you? (Besides, how can the hero possibly look after a puppy when he’s off adventuring all the time? Seriously. That puppy wouldn’t ever be really his anyway.)



  1. No, no, can’t possibly kill the hero’s puppy. Now, that girlfriend? Yeah, killed her, but she keeps claiming to merely be seriously injured, and whispering about how she can use the Hero’s belief in her death to manipulate him in later books. Thus proving that letting your hero fall for the Bad Girl is never a good idea.

    Excuse me, I hear a knock at the door. Hopefully it’s the guys with the I love me jacket to take me away from all these people. _They_ can just type up their own stories while I’m getting my meds adjusted.

    Much though I hate to say it, I just don’t kill enough people. Must work on that.

      1. You’re getting better at it, Sarah.

        Remember, corpses are good. Corpses show readers you’re serious. Corpses help authors let off stress in ways that don’t get them arrested and locked up without Internet.

    1. A trail of dead bodies shows that you MEAN it. Killing the hero’s puppy is a calculated risk… The goal is to get said hero more pissed off at the bad guys than at me.

  2. Would you *really* kill a dog? I’m coming up on a scene in the WIP where a bomb will go off, and there’s a dog, an incredibly sweet, loyal dog . . . I can’t even think about it. A human will die, but not the dog.

    1. Kali, milk it for all the tears you can get; the injured dog dragging himself out of the ruins, only to find his dead master and so forth.

      1. And when you want to really twist the knife that extra turn, that’s when the dog dies.


    1. Laine,

      I think that might have been the idea. Hedwig meant a lot to Harry, and Rowling systematically killed off a whole lot of the people and animals that meant a lot to Harry.

  3. You’ve been reading my drafts again, Kate. Even the ones that are still inside my head, somehow …. I’ve only written the part where he finally *gets* the puppy he’s been wanting for a book and a half …

    But those “flagged” minors? Yeah, we’ve got some of them. Like the guy whose return after an absence goes, “I assumed that it was a new cigar stub, but I couldn’t be completely sure. The scowl it protruded from hadn’t changed, though.” And minors who grow out of their assigned roles? Well, you saw what happened with the Gremlin in HTBF, right? 🙂

    1. Stephen,

      Stop broadcasting your thoughts, then! You know I failed Telepathy 101!
      And yeah, the flagged minors work well for your named characters to play off, work with, kill, and on occasion subject to some variety of fate worse than death (of which I’ve written quite a few, none of them the old-school traditional version)

      1. Wow. Just reread a first draft from a few years ago. :: shudder :: I may have to red shirt the lot, before I can toss it and do a complete rewrite. Did I actually think those guys were *funny*? Hello? Had I not heard of character growth at that point in my writing? Must cleanse mind with at least two burnings at stake.

        1. Pam,

          It happens to everyone. You learn more as you go, then you look back at your earlier work and think “Was I thinking?” (because “what was I thinking” is over-optimistic).

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