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.
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.