Have you ever fallen hard for one (or more) of the less main characters in a book or series? You know the ones. Take Lord of the Rings: the characters I most love are Samwise and Faramir. Granted, Sam pretty much is a main character because he’s such a great presence and Frodo, cast to be the main character, is just not particularly colorful. It happens. And Faramir is so noble and set upon by his father I can’t help but join his team. When I fall for a character, any character, I fall all the way.
Secondary characters play an important role in storytelling. One of the things they do brilliantly is provide an alternate POV—often without having POV scenes at all. Secondary characters also serve as surrogates for either the audience or the author. Nearly every author can point to a character in their books who in various ways embodies the author’s perspective on the story, politics, or other matters—and minor characters are frequently used this way. Similarly, less prominent characters allow the audience to participate in the story more fully and vicariously.
Warning! If you read the samples, you risk spoilers if you have not already read the published books!
I use secondary characters to bring out different story elements.
“Dorilian, you know, he’s not one to sit quiet. I saw that when I stayed here this winter—people coming and going—he’s all about trade and politics, and from what I can tell, he’s popular in his own country, even if everyone hates him here. And even people who hate him aren’t in a hurry to cross him.” Cullen tossed his stone and searched for another. “Your grandfather’s smart, if you ask me, to keep him close.”
Cullen’s statement to Stefan in Sordaneon gives a not-MC perspective that rounds out both Dorilian as a character and the socio-political fabric of the story. Seeing Dorilian from the sidelines and not head-on means there’s less personal investment.
In another scene, Ionais offers a side view of Marc Frederick to Dorilian.
“Marc Frederick does that,” she blithely continued. “People are intimidated by him at first because they don’t know what to expect. But then he starts to talk to them, and they listen and gaze into his eyes and realize he’s ever so interested in what they have to say, and they start to like him.”
If the author has done her work correctly readers, and Dorilian too, eventually do come around to liking Marc Frederick.
Some of the most dead-on glimpses into the beliefs and constructs of the Triempery come from side characters. For example, in The God Spear a Kheld named Nalf comments on how he and his people view the Highborn:
“And why is that?” Nalf was not backing down. “It’s because the abominations appear howsoever they wish to appear! What looks like a man and talks like a man may still not be one. The Highborn may appear like men, but they are monsters: their flesh is fashioned by dark arts, their eyes shine in the dark, their skin is cold to the touch—you but saw what he wanted you to see. They are demon seed, and they practice the ways of the damned!”
In Sordaneon, Daimonaeris conveys clearly why she and her brother Nammuor think their country of Mormantalorus is superior to that of the rest of the Triempery:
Her country had not wished to see her wed to a foreign prince, but such was Nammuor’s command, and none dared oppose his plans. Sordan’s rulers are weak, he’d whispered to her one night in their private grotto, a cavern carved by a volcano and fed by the sea. Its dome was encrusted with glowing, omnivorous ferns, ones that feasted on tiny life forms lifted by air currents from hot, luminescent pools below. His eyes had glowed with the golden future he described to her. The Highborn Princes of Sordan have degenerated, bred with half-men to become half-men themselves. All we need do is plant the seed we wish to flower.
And so she was among them now, among half-men. Among people of bloodlines so tangled and confused that they lacked identity or even true history, whereas she could claim descent from the god Amynas through his son Ergeiron. Her Highborn forefathers had wrested the Citadel of Fire from the volcano that had claimed its lower levels, had made the City habitable and reclaimed Mormantalorus from the sea. Her people alone had kept their bloodlines pure: through isolation, through need, and through pride. Not for them the thoughtless coupling of animals, degenerate and indulgent. They were the Pure, the uncontaminated. Only sterilized slaves were allowed into the Citadel to serve their pleasure, and any child of a slave was a slave itself. Slaves were educated, well-treated, well-used—and they belonged to the god-sired rulers of the land. But here in Sordan, even the god-born had become half-men and coupled with lesser blood.
The above passage also serves to give readers a rare glimpse of Mormantalorus itself, a Leur-raised wonder built on a volcano and populated by an elite obsessed with magic and racial purity. Side characters can tie in portions of the world that otherwise would not be seen or explained through the main characters.
Here is an important bit of worldbuilding that shows up in The Walled City, related by one of the Dog Men:
“The memories of my people are thick; we remember the godborn race of old. Derlon Sordaneon’s body is in that thing that runs between Permephedon and Sordan. If you could cut it, such parts of it as can still bleed would bleed godborn blood. Whatever properties godborn flesh has, it shares. It grows. It heals on its own. And it knows its own. It took Derlon’s cells many years to do, many centuries, but he has grown throughout the entire system. The crowns you see, the stations being used because they served the early needs of Staubaun-kind, are nothing. They are just hairs on the surface of the Rill beast. The rest is underground.”
Hans recalled the schematic he had seen at Sordan, the red lines, the blue ones, green and gold. Spokes and hubs of ancient purpose. “You mean the Rill—”
“Is everywhere. It underlies all the lands—and maybe more. The Aryati knew this. They feared what Derlon could become. What he would become. They had a plan to poison him, early, when it could still be done, but their effort failed. Now the thing is truly Immortal, and a god—Highborn, yes, and still Sordaneon.” Baran leaned forward and drew a line in the air, then indicated the space below it. “Beneath the land, under the hills, the Rill stuff slumbers. What do you think would make it erupt to the surface, send forth new growth, new empires?”
As shown above, minor characters can give alternative views of settings in ways main characters in their POVs might never glimpse. Here is Palimia’s experience of Sordan upon her arrival there in The Kheld King. In the early chapters of that book, Sordan is now under Dorilian’s rule and recovering from earlier oppression.
While walking downhill from the Upper City, Palimia tarried. She stopped at a baker for bread and purchased white cheese and a pot of spicy orange preserves from one of the artisans who catered to Sordan’s nobility. Although decimated a generation ago by Essera’s hard-handed occupancy, that nobility now appeared robust and decidedly prosperous. Palimia had seen several grand residences being renovated on the way.
Palimia’s small apartment occupied the far corner of a rundown building that had formerly housed students attending a nearby academy. After the academy had closed, the dwelling converted to serving travelers who paid by the week and didn’t mind having to carry water up three floors from the cistern. A vestige of gentility still clung to the walls. The pavement outside was swept, the house painted a hopeful shade of coral.
Other characters’ experiences of Sordan up to her POV have been of the City’s loftiest structures: the royal palaces.
Also in The Kheld King, Cullen gives readers the sole firsthand view of Gignastha and its famous aqueduct.
“If you look hard enough, you can see it.” Kyros pointed. “Over that way, those red arches. The Vermillion Aqueduct.”
A blood-bright line of narrow, symmetric arches marched above the blue-purple angles and towers of Gignastha before vanishing toward distant mountains. Beautiful and massive, one of the Second Creation’s great wonders, the aqueduct supplied vast amounts of fresh water from the mountains and also served to lock the impregnable gates of the Watergilt Palace. It had been raised up by Highborn magic fifteen hundred years ago and shattered by sorcery in Cullen’s lifetime.
“It looks… whole. I thought it was broken.”
He and Ranwulf nudged their mounts to follow Kyros’s lead down the paved road past houses and other buildings of wood and stone. The small village called Lagurn served as a stop for traders and other travelers not headed to the city.
“Patched it, we did, with new arches and channels of regular stone, then painted it over to match. It’s a marvel, the original parts. The patch leaks.”
In another passage Coram Barzanes, a minion of the very main character Nammuor, explains a bit of magic to Stefan in The Kheld King:
Coram lifted aside a lock of hair on the left side of his head to display an ornament adorned with golden gems that encircled his ear and pressed flat disks upon his temple. Two attached, finger-long red jewels dangled just in front of his ear. “The lr crystals in this device are cleaved; their other halves are in Stauberg. By activating it I can return to there this very moment.” He let his hair fall again to conceal the powerful thing.
Explaining bits of worldbuilding in this way flows better than using exposition. Magic is almost always better shown than explained and a key property of lr magic is shown through minor character Erenor’s POV in this scene, also from The Kheld King:
Palaistea reached for the largest fiery stone and pried at it. Virulent green light seeped from its setting. Dazzling jewels encircled her fingers, her wrist.
“Fool!” Coram’s mouth dropped open as he stared in horror. He tossed the device in his hands into the deathstone case at his feet and slammed it shut just as blinding gold light laced with crackling green energy burst through the seams of the lid.
A blaze bright as the sun flooded the mirror. So did screams.
It is through a minor character that the fact lr settings must not be tampered with is established as a foundational element of the story.
Opposing points of view.
In The Kheld King Cullen, more than any other character, provides readers with a look at a long simmering conflict that’s about to blow up in Stefan’s face.
“You might have noticed we have few Khelds in Gignastha.” Verteus admonished from beneath a furrowed brow. “I think you understand why.”
“A bit of murder called the Bloodletting.” A local lord whose name Cullen had yet to learn provided that reason in case it was needed.
Gignastha is an important focal point for the core conflict between Staubauns and Khelds in the Triempery series; what happened there fourteen years ago lies at the root of what happens next—and what Gignastha represents as the story moves forward. Cullen’s perspective is rounder and fuller than that of the main characters. Through him, readers gain the upper hand in understanding a conflict that is going to echo throughout the series.
Opposing views are also provided by characters like Chyralane, Denizen of Phaer, as in this scene from Sordaneon, where she tells Dorilian what the Seven Houses perceive to be their relationship to the Rill.
“You don’t believe me? I tell you none defend your Entity better. We honor the Rill; we obey its rhythms and inhabit what it has created. We uphold the Covenant wherever we are and honor the charge laid upon the Epoptes. We serve the Rill by creating and distributing wealth, easing the lives of its dependents and believers, and condemning all who would interfere with its gifts. All that we do celebrates the Rill’s being. Can your family say as much?”
Minor characters also issue warnings and foreshadowings. Emyli is not really a minor character in terms of the series; in Sordaneon she is secondary, however—and she delivers this reprimand to Dorilian about the Stauberg-Randolphs:
“You think us upstarts, usurpers still, for all that we came by our power legitimately. But you will find that we are stubborn and tough—as stubborn and tough as you yourself can be—and we will not be uprooted.”
Minor characters can become major ones down the road, though most stay in their lane, informing the reader and being useful. Below are a few of the notable secondary characters readers will meet in the Triempery Revelations: