On my most recent trip to the book store I picked up a copy of Bernard Cornwell’s book The Empty Throne, part of his Saxon Tales series, which I have enjoyed and will post about soon. One of the things I enjoy about Cornwell is the depth he gives his world and as I read this time I paid special attention to how he does this and I think that part of it has to do with his background characters.
Depth is one of the things that I think separates a good story from a great story. You can have a good all-around story, but if you don’t color in the back ground and give a good sense of the world in which it takes place, you can end up with it feeling rather flat and two dimensional.
Cornwell does a wonderful job of filling out his world with characters who may only appear once or twice, but he keeps them connected. What his hero, Uhtred, does to one character may be heard of again from someone so that the reader gets the impression that there is a world outside of the main character’s plot, one that goes on when the main character isn’t there.
Take for example King Hywell, who appears on one of Uhtred’s travels to Wales. Uhtred is only around Hywell for about 30 pages in a 300 page story, and Hywell isn’t even mentioned in most of it. Uhtred just happens to be going about his business in the same area, and the two interact for a bit before parting ways. As they part, Hywell says
“ ‘So’ he continued, 'your Aethelflaed will hear of war in our land, but assure her it is not her business. It is ours. Leave us alone and we will leave you alone.’”
There is little mention elsewhere of Hywell or the wars he speaks of, and Uhtred soon sails back to England to go back to fighting the Danes, but those pages spent with Hywell give the story a sense of depth, and the sense that Cornwell is telling a story that takes place in a complex and deep world, as opposed to a two-dimensional set containing just his primary characters.
Other authors utilize secondary characters similarly, such as The Gaffer and the innkeeper Barliman Butterbur or the warden Hama in The Lord of the Rings. The Gaffer especially does little to further the plot, but these characters help to fill out the story and give a sense of place that makes the reading experience more in-depth. Secondary characters are often used to move the plot along, but it is important to remember, if you are a writer, that these characters are characters, not plot devices, and they have their own motivations and personalities. Not all of it may make it into the story, but it needs to be imagined to create a sense of realism and to avoid the impression that they exist soley for the benefit of the plot.
…All of which is illustrated hilariously in this teaser for the Sherlock Holmes Special. Hope you enjoyed the read, and I’m curious who are some of your favorite secondary characters? Comment below!