I’ve been looking around for The Abomination to continue my series of posts heckling my first attempt at a novel, but I misplaced the manuscript while cleaning this summer. Like most objects of extreme evil/stupidity, it’s bound to turn up. However, I did find a detailed critique from the one person who actually read the first draft of my second novel attempt. One of the points of what was wrong with it was “Where are all the lovable bad guys and gals?”
This story had very few side characters. Good, bad — zilch. The few it had only existed as long as they were in the main character’s line of sight. Out of sight was out of the novel.
Aside from creating a few logical flaws (a large ship should have a skeleton crew at the very least, not just the only two people in the world opposed to mass genocide), it got boring. The whole thing became about the main conflict between the main protagonists and antagonists — dramatic, to be sure, but overbearing without side characters to provide well-timed distractions.
Side characters are a great source of conflict. In a perfect (or halfway decent) novel, no one gets along perfectly. Real people don’t, either. There are love triangles all over the place. Not all are the traditional sort:
Fighting over affections. With any blend of genders, you can have two people in love with the same person. Whether they started out as friends or enemies, everything from personal hygiene to physical prowess becomes a competition.
Fighting over attention. Not all triangles involve love. Maybe you have two candidates for a promotion and both want to impress their supervisor. Maybe the sorcerer from Over the Mountains needs a Chosen One and he’s holding tryouts.
Fighting over Object of Power. Everyone and their second cousin twice removed was after the One Ring — no shortage of conflict there. And how many people wanted to get the four stones in The Fifth Element? A lot. Or maybe the Object of Power is a floppy disc or a cell phone.
Fighting over property. Take your pick from large and small scale: land, livestock, jewelry, keys, pens, staplers, seats in the cafeteria… As a bit of a possessive freak, I can assure you that even touching something someone has claimed can begin a duel to the death.
Fighting over nothing. Ever disagree with someone just to spite them? They might be right, but damned if you’ll admit it! Your characters can be that way, too. Maybe that guy slept with your hero’s sister’s gardener and now the hero hates that guy no matter what he does. Or he just doesn’t like people who smell like chicken and have beards.
A well-placed diversion from the main plot gives depth to all your characters — readers see them in a less critical situation — and a breath to your readers. It might even add tension to the main conflict. If your character’s embezzlement scheme is about to be discovered, she really doesn’t want to argue about all the pens she borrowed and never gave back to that guy in the office who will not let her leave until all his pens have been returned.
Just make sure you’ve set it up throughout the story and have her dump all her stolen pens into a safety deposit box or something. Then it will make sense.