Sci-Fi · Writing

Diverse Worldbuilding with Minor Characters

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m writing again after several months of research paper stuff, and I keep getting distracted by minor characters. However, this is really a feature, not a bug! Don’t you want your readers to be interested in all your characters? Compelling incidental characters make the story’s world seem more realistic. They indicate that your world is full of real people pursuing their own lives, rather than just painted backdrops for your heroes to pass through. That’s especially important in sci-fi and fantasy, where authors can tend to get distracted with scientific or magical worldbuilding and forget their fantastical races are actually meant to be people. In an SFF story, you can actually do both at the same time — create realistic people, and also use them to build a tone and indicate the physical worldbuilding you’ve done, even when it doesn’t affect your plot. Plus, fan-favorite minor characters can be handy later on in sequels, promotional short stories, and other materials.

About a year ago, I pinned this interview with Scott Lynch to my writing tips board. It’s an interesting interview on the topic of secondary characters and female characters in general, but if my memory is correct, it also gave me the idea of giving every minor character something. I try to describe something about every incidental character — an interesting name with a story behind it, an attitude, a specialized job title, a distinctive physical characteristic.

I mentioned several incidental characters yesterday, but today I’m focusing on Perkins. He began as an unnamed spaceship technician who picks up a fallen wrench and then disappears. The most incidental of characters, barely a “character” at all — reducible to one hand. When I read the scene a second time, though, I ended up expanding that role to a few paragraphs. I really liked his competence combined with his helpfulness. I liked that he was a bit older than most of the techs, but still young for his rank (although that’s not even mentioned in the narrative). Most importantly, the person interacting with him noticed his name tag, so that gave him a name. At that point, he’s not just a hand anymore, he’s a minor character.

For his something, I decided to give Perkins undefined but visible “mobility aids” on his knees and wrists. On that second read-through, I’d realized the way I was describing engine rooms would give readers no reason NOT to think that people with disabilities couldn’t be spaceship engineers. To put it another way, engine rooms are big tall towers with techs swinging around on ladders and strapped to control stations in the walls. One might assume that everyone there is young and able-bodied, without ever consciously thinking about it at all. As Perkins demonstrates, that is not the case! My future is a good future, where people can do any damn thing they want, so there.

From this blog, found through Google.
From this blog, found through Google.

Perkins has wrist aids as well as knee aids because I didn’t want to imply he’d been injured. One of the things that comes across in his few paragraphs is that he actually cares about passenger safety and following launch procedures, but that’s always been the case — that’s why he was promoted a bit young. I didn’t want to make it seem like there was some dark past behind it. Plus, walking-related issues are the most common disabilities shown in SFF because they give creators a reason for rocket wheelchairs, and the cause is usually an injury just to add drama. I didn’t want to do the usual without contributing anything AT ALL to improving representation. I could do a whole post about trying to diversify my world, and I probably will at some point — for now I’ll just say there are a limited number of spots for central characters in any novel. Those spots should be as diverse as reasonably possible, but no set of characters can or should be representative of the whole world. That’s where supporting and minor characters come in. Why assume they’re all straight white able-bodied dudes? If you don’t say they’re not, people will assume they are. So, say they’re not. Make your world more interesting than that.

And yes, Perkins was named for the Perkins on Doctor Who!

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9 thoughts on “Diverse Worldbuilding with Minor Characters

  1. I read this a while ago and didn’t have the voice to comment. I don’t want to be a debbie downer, but I gotta tell you, there’s no reason why a reference to undefined mobility aids on somebody’s wrists would stop me as a reader from assuming the character had an acquired injury.A “mobility aid” is a device used to help someone move/ambulate–so, unless I know what the devices are helping with, my assumption is going to be that the character is a quadriplegic and literally can’t move without those things there. Or the author didn’t do any research and just threw them in for diversity points.

    I talk about this with Em in an upcoming post–at at least half of the audience is probably going to assume that she’s paralyzed and has a war injury in the first story. I just have to live with it until I have enough room to talk about why she uses a wheelchair.

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  2. I find that the more I write, the more I try to give minor characters at least one little thing to make them distinctive. Maybe it’s the way they talk, or the way they look. Maybe they have a subplot that either ties directly into the main plot or into one of the main characters. There has to be balance between fleshing out your secondary characters and not over-complicating your book, and that’s the real challenge.

    Also, Perkins sounds fairly unique, with wrist aids instead of rocket chairs or electronic eyes.

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    1. Quite right… Sometimes I do feel like I’m “foreshadowing” something when there’s nothing to foreshadow, so readers will be angry. I figure I’ll fix it in edits.

      Thanks, I hope so!

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      1. It’s usually the opposite for me. In my first drafts, I’m more likely to randomly insert a light subplot that seems to work fine, but wasn’t foreshadowed beforehand. I add the foreshadowing into the second draft and fix it up in the third. Then again, sometimes I decide the inserted subplots are pointless and remove them completely or save them for another book.

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  3. I’ve been loving the chance to learn more about minor characters — it does give the story depth and a sense of more “realness”… and it’s just kinda fun. One of the things I’ve REALLY been enjoying about Disparate Threads is that I’ve been able to really delve into these side characters and create stories with them outside of the main narrative.

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