Secondary Characters: The Curse of the Dark Horse

I have a problem that’s been going on for quite sometime. I’ve sort of noticed it off and on in the background, but always dismissed it as something I don’t really need to take steps to fix. Until now.

It came to a head when I went back to a WIP and started thinking about how I wanted to continue. And that’s when I realised—in order to continue the story the direction I had headed it in, I had to go back and completely restructure the beginning: in this case, actually axe the beginning and start somewhere else. And I didn’t want to. So I played the Pirates of the Caribbean game At World’s End on my PC instead. Nothing like bad graphics and lagging controls to relax a mind troubled with a creative block.

At World’s End

But the changes needed for continuing my story stayed with me, as did the reasons for my hesitancy (besides just a healthy dislike for more editing work). The reason I didn’t want to axe the beginning is because it originally wasn’t just the beginning few scenes of a longer narrative, it was a complete idea for a short story. So, writing it, I put in a lot of time and care in to making it just so, leading up to a moment where there’s a twist and the story was meant to end.

And then I kept writing. Which is a mistake in its own right, and leads to more complications.

I had inserted a secondary character to fill a role in the events of the short story, who I began to get more interested in. And then I wrote just a bit more to complete the scene after the twist, and I got dragged into the backstory of another secondary character: one that was already dead before the story began. And from that point on, the horses kept running away with me. I added more characters, more plot, more settings, more subtext… until finally, it happened. The thing that has been happening to me more and more frequently lately that I have now just come to realise is a serious problem. I had completely abandoned my original main characters and gotten taken over by side characters. The side characters were now the main characters and I hadn’t even noticed the power shift until it was over. The new mayors were in town—the dark horse won the election.

I will just put a disclaimer here and say that this type of character coup would probably not blindside the writer who actually plots their novels before writing them. But I am not a plotter, so here we are.

I think for me this problem of getting derailed by the side characters stems from my frequent preference for secondary characters in books, movies, and television. I watch Thor, I fall in love with Loki; I read Eragon, I like Murtagh… and it’s not always just liking the dark, half/step brother over the golden boy/chosen brother, although those two examples do indicate an established trend in my tastes. No, I also like the obscure secondary POW Ashley-Pitt over the flashy main character Captain Hilts in The Great Escape. Often the main characters are written to be fairly transparent so that there is no difficulty in the audience understanding and going along with them. Side characters often have hidden weaknesses or skills that emerge during a crisis, and that sparks interest. Take my all time favourite character from The Great Escape, Danny, who digs the tunnels despite—and perhaps partially because of—his panic-inducing fear of confinement. Main man Cpt. Hilts doesn’t have a sympathetic secret like that, and all his stunts smack more of hubris than true heroism.

But using Danny as an example of secondary character development is almost disingenuous, because (unlike Ashley-Pitt) he is technically what I would consider another main character. Which brings us to another point, and one which may be the saving of my manuscript: there is such a thing as having a large cast of all main characters. And this does not really involve one character (or set of a couple characters) ceding territory to a new batch of characters and sidelining themself. Instead, it establishes many characters on the same level, taking it in turns to be either in the foreground or background as plot and personalities require. And here’s why I think this method of making more characters main characters might be the answer to my problem. It came to me as I was playing At World’s End.

We’re back to the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Johnny Depp is offered a small role as a quirky captain trying to get his ship back. He, being Johnny Depp, immerses himself in building his character, backstory, mannerisms, style, speech, everything. With a fully developed, 3-D character, Jack Sparrow swaggers (or maybe “staggers”) into the film. The cover for the movie and the subsequent franchise tells the rest—Jack Sparrow is a main character, sharing the story with other, equally powerful (at least in the first three movies) main characters. They complement each other and play off one another, the focus ebbing and flowing from one to another as the story is told.

Jack Sparrow was a secondary character who commandeered a place at the forefront of the narrative. And the movie, instead of leaving him a secondary character who would then steal the show by his sheer charisma and distract from the story, put him in The Curse of the Black Pearl as what appears to be a dark horse, running him against the more prominent candidates of Will/Elizabeth, Norrington, and Barbossa. Jack Sparrow is seemingly disconnected from what the other characters are striving towards at the beginning, yet his presence can be traced to the very first scene of the movie. His sailing with Bootstrap Bill forms a connection to Will, his revenge against Barbossa forms a connection with the gold doubloon, and we hardly need to spell out his connection to Elizabeth’s sighting of the Black Pearl. He almost sneaks into main character status throughout the movie as it turns out that it is his story that everyone else has walked into. The movie is framed around Jack escaping being marooned as a secondary character, wresting back his place as principle player from the usurper Barbossa.

Though Jack ultimately wins out over Barbossa, he doesn’t technically sweep the entire election, so to speak, and is therefore not a dark horse. Jack Sparrow shares his win with Will and Elizabeth (who are a unit, as far as I’m concerned). Despite the testimony of his centrally prominent place on the cover, Jack Sparrow is only one of four main characters, and though Barbossa is despatched at the end (Norrington turning out to have never even been a player), Will and Elizabeth retain their main character status.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

So sometimes secondary characters can effectively be transformed into main characters if it’s done intentionally, without replacing the other crucial main characters. Unfortunately, because my current WIP is written like a dark horse takeover because I have chosen to develop these Johnny-come-lately main characters, I will still have to lose the first twenty pages of the manuscript and reframe it with multiple main characters in mind. I’m just resigned to it now. I should take the fictitious novelist Vida Winter’s advice and keep my secondary characters my secondary characters:

“It doesn’t do to get attached to these secondary characters. It’s not their story. They come, they go, and when they go they’re gone for good. That’s all there is to it.”

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

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