Return to the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide: Lesser Lights

So another week has vanished with little to show for it apart from the usual explosions at work (why yes, that server we’ve been agitating to have replaced for the past five years really is overloaded and obsolete. Why do you think it keeps crashing in peak time? And no, it really isn’t a good idea to format your flat-file data so that one record type allows leading spaces and the linked associated record type doesn’t. What makes you think you doing this makes it my problem?). That of course means it’s time for another instalment of the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide, this time a quick look at the “joys” of minor characters and how to “promote” uppity ones into the unexpected corpse that just derailed your hero.

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. Yeah, had to kill a minor last book. Really ticked me off to do it. Liked the guy, and he could have been a better minor character for stuff. Had to die though. More for the plot and driving things forward. Also one of those fickle finger of fate things as well. I have been bribing some of my minor characters though if that helps. So far so good, and I haven’t had to kill anyone else since. May have to though. Just cause environment stuff.

  2. Cue Jim Butcher and his MC’s dog. Though that one turned out to be a character, not a “pet.” *chuckle*

    I have a horse and a mouse to deal with. The one is no problem- what’s a knight without a horse? The other, well…

    1. Have a horse that’s a pivotal point twice. An expensive horse, given to a commoner. On the surface it looks like punishment to the horse’ owner and that the king’s a stand-up guy. I hope older readers will pick up he sees the commoner as a decoy, and may not be as good as his subjects think. The second time it provides motivation by the protagonist to act in a certain way.

      This leads to another issue. I wrote this years before I read a modern novel with a horse with the same name. I let it stand because both horses are barely characters at all. What do you think?

        1. I try to not kill off named animals, but sometimes the plot requires it, for realism (a horse in a cavalry charge) or to bring home the fallibility of the main character (an over-confident young wizard testing an elixir of long life on his old dog). I haven’t yet killed one for taking over a story, but it’s only a matter of time.

          1. This. I really did not like killing off so many horses in the Elizabeth books, but that’s what happens to cavalry horses in Early Modern warfare. And given the number of people who got killed… Yeah, the horses were comparatively minor.

    2. Drat. My scattered memory assures me that I have read a book with a knight that had a mouse in his bag (saddlebag? shoulderbag? some kind of bag, anyway), for some reason. Pet, friend, who knows? And now that you’ve reminded me, I’m very curious. I wonder which book that was…

      1. I remember a history of clothing video that talked about medieval dresses with pockets in the sleeves specifically to carry small furry animals for warming purposes. (Presumably they were also considered pets. Woman With an Ermine didn’t come out of nowhere.)

      2. From Through the Looking-Glass:

        ‘But you’ve got a bee-hive—or something like one—fastened to the saddle,’ said Alice.

        ‘Yes, it’s a very good bee-hive,’ the Knight said in a discontented tone, ‘one of the best kind. But not a single bee has come near it yet. And the other thing is a mouse-trap. I suppose the mice keep the bees out—or the bees keep the mice out, I don’t know which.’

        ‘I was wondering what the mouse-trap was for,’ said Alice. ‘It isn’t very likely there would be any mice on the horse’s back.’

        ‘Not very likely, perhaps,’ said the Knight: ‘but if they do come, I don’t choose to have them running all about.’

  3. Fortunately I write far enough ahead of my publishing that when my Main Character (AKA subconscious) really hates my killing off a named character, I can rewrite and bring him or her back to life.

    (Nervous glance over shoulder) Really you don’t want your subconscious really really pissed at you.

    1. That’s why I don’t kill off characters. The whole book is really about -not- killing them off. Telling an action story without random, pointless deaths in it turns out to be pretty difficult.

      I let the bad guy be the one who kills people, and he does it off stage. That’s what bad guys are for.

  4. Or you do a Weber and have two pages of description of a minor character, which almost always means he or she is going to get bumped off later in the book.

    I’ve been going through minor characters rather quickly recently, and needed names. Happily, we have teh Interweb and English to Mandarin and Cantonese web-sites. Animal spirit? Look up Chinese names for the animal and go from there.

    1. That’s one thing I like about Weber, and even Martin; neither are afraid to kill off a fleshed out character. Heck, neither are afraid to lop off significant portions of even their main characters.

        1. Honor is a woman. And there things a gentleman just doesn’t do to a lady. Even if she’s ‘only’ imaginary.

  5. Reminds me of a bartender in a Bogart movie. Dumps on Bogie. Bogie says something like “You’re having a bad day. It’s OK. I can take it.”

  6. Sometimes a corpse can continue being a character for quite a while. I can’t recall the book(s) but I do remember reading stories where other characters talk about the dead guy and keep bringing him up. There can be flashback scenes.
    There doesn’t have to be a necromancer around for a corpse to keep showing up. 🙂

  7. “Besides, how can the hero possibly look after a puppy when he’s off adventuring all the time?”

    Spike, the legendary dog. Golden Retriever as big as a polar bear. Guards the house from snoopy, ill mannered aliens, steals the bumpers off armored cars, woofs at the neighbor’s cat.

    1. Oberon, the Irish wolfhound owned by the main character in the Iron Druid series. Gets his immortality potion on a regular basis, is mentally linked to the protagonist, and has a certain snarky resemblance to a jhereg.

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