Stepping to Center Stage: Why It's Good When Tertiary Characters Hog the Camera

Vision 13


Stepping to Center Stage:

Why It's Good When Tertiary Characters

Hog the Camera  


Jon Chaisson

Copyright © 2003, Jon Chaisson, All Rights Reserved


Her name is Christine Gorecki.  Honestly, she was only going to be in one, maybe two scenes, and that was it.  She was supposed to be a secondary character that helped the story move along.  Her first name is my cousin's name; her last is a song by techno-popsters Lamb.  'She has long, curly blonde hair' , is an adept in the metaphysical arts, an ex-cop who has her own "spiritual crime investigations" office, and used to work with two of the lead characters.  That's the entirety of the background I gave Christine for my current story, A Division of Souls.  And yet I can't help but think I have the perfect "gumshoe private eye" character to place in a short story or three. 

How does this happen?  What exactly did I do for Christine that made me love the idea of her?  I can think of only one reason:  I'd made her truly unique to the story instead of making her generic, a passing acquaintance.  She had a background:  she used to work for the Alien Relations Unit in Bridgetown alongside Alec Poe, one of the main characters in the book.  Poe and Christine weren't lovers, but there had been an instant bond between the two.  Consider the first time she's mentioned—Poe and  his ARU partner Caren are meeting with, a psychic government agent named Kai (who admittedly has a thing for Poe): 

"What do you think?" Poe said.  Kai looked at him quizzically until he realized he was talking to Caren.  "Nice view, eh?"

"Not bad," she said, noncommittally.

        Poe's eyes suddenly sparkled.  "Hey, you know who'd love it up here?  Christine Gorecki."

        The mention of the woman's name perked Caren's mood up significantly.  "Christine!  Whatever happened to her?  Sure, she'd love it up here.  All the space and peace she'd need for her spiritwork."

        "I really should call her," Poe said.  "I'd almost feel guilty if we didn't involve her in this somehow."  He turned to Kai and smiled.  "Christine's one of the best freelance spiritworkers in the Sprawl."

        Kai nodded.  "Has she worked with the two of you?"

        "Off and on," Caren said.  "Although we haven't spoken to her in about six months or so…"

        "Her choice," Poe said.  "'Spiritual burnout' is what she told me."

In this short conversation, we learn things about Christine, in the following order—Poe has a place in his heart for her; Caren's mood lightens at her name, suggesting the same; Poe thinks well enough of her that she should be included in their current investigation; Kai may or may not be jealous of the bond she and Poe share; and lastly, Christine has recently overworked her psychic abilities.

In other words, Christine Gorecki is a smart, but burned out, detective who's well liked and trusted by many of her former co-workers but prone to rubbing people the wrong way, even unintentionally.  Okay, that last one may be a bit of a stretch, but hey—this is speculative fiction.  We can embellish all we want.  So in that one scene I've given Christine a believable background without even bringing her onstage.

She is what I like to call a "third-tier" character.  She's not a main character, nor is she even secondary.  She appears in only four or five scenes, but they're all pivotal scenes.  I like using third-tier characters in my stories, because they serve more of a purpose than a "peanut gallery" to the main characters, yet they're not constantly sticking around like those secondary characters do.  They are believable people we might meet on the street or at work, people we may know little about yet they affect our lives in some way, whether we notice it or not.

So when was the moment that I realized I had a great character just waiting to break out?  Consider a pivotal scene close to the climax of the book.  Poe needs Christine's help in performing a difficult ritual to save the day:

A moment later she returned wearing a black B-Town Saints ballcap and a dark green overcoat and carrying a briefcase.  She set the briefcase down on the floor and gestured for him to carry it.  She smiled at him as if she hadn't minded his sudden rush; in fact, she looked as if this job had been the biggest one she'd had since they last spoke.  She closed and locked her office, and led him through the back to a rear stairwell that led up all six floors and down two basement levels.  She bounded up the back stairs so quickly that Poe nearly had to run in order to catch up.

        "So what are we looking at?" she asked over her shoulder.

        "The Rain of Light," Poe wheezed.  "Slow down, kid.  You know I still smoke."

        That elicited a laugh from her.  "Then quit.  Rain, huh?  Sounds like a simple case of corruption.  Anyone I know cause it?"

        This time Poe laughed, though his was laced with a bitter taste.  "Haven't you been watching the news, Christine?  This is a religious war we're fighting here.  That thing was wakened by a Mihari and corrupted by a Misuteru nuhm'ndah."

        "I know," she kidded.  "Just wanted to make sure you were up on things."

        He shook his head.  "I should know better than to talk to you, shouldn't I?"

        "Yes, you should," she smiled.

Some time during the writing of this passage, I realized I had something:  Christine is one mysterious woman.  She's someone everyone likes, yet nobody really knows too much about her.  Not even me, and I created her!  She playfully toys with Poe's mind by remaining aloof, yet we realize that her mind is running in overdrive, planning her next moves before anyone has even mentioned them.  She doesn't take crap from anyone, not even Poe.  And though she takes things very seriously, she's not above injecting a little humor into a tense situation to alleviate stress. 

Such a complex character for someone who only has a bit part!  I just had to get to know her.  Although I have not put anything regarding Christine down on paper, or on the computer screen since, I know I can definitely use her for other projects and sequels without worrying about how much background I've put into the character.  Mentally I picture Christine's stories as shorts involving offbeat crimes that only she has the experience (and the patience) to solve.  All this from a few one-off lines.

Now, if you find yourself dwelling over a secondary or tertiary character like I've been doing here, by all means, create as much background for this person as you like.  You know you're not going to use all of it in the main novel, so why let it go to waste?  Write a short story or two involving this person.  Write a vignette of your main story from their point of view.  Regardless of the outcome, it's a "win-win-win" situation.  First, this is a wonderful side project when you need a break from the main story.  Second, any amount of time you spend writing, regardless of what it is, is always a good thing!  Finally, and most importantly, you will definitely have a better understanding of your characters within the main story and they will all appear more real, not only to you but your reader. 

(All excerpts from A Division of Souls by Jon Chaisson)

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