The importance of secondary characters

I finally got the DVD set for Stargate: Atlantis. I posted about it on twitter and listed some of the characters that made Atlantis great. I then looked back at my tweet and realised something. Only one of the characters mentioned had ever been in the credits, the rest were just recurring guest stars.

There’s this TV show Alias. I’ve mentioned it a few times I think as it proved inspiring for this novel I’ve been attempting to write for years. However, one of the points about Alias that I always laugh about is that it’s a hard show to actually watch. The headcanon I have for Alias works much better than the actual show. Why? Because I loathe the main characters. I can not stand Sydney or Vaughn.

Obviously I like the main characters in Atlantis but that doesn’t stop me from sometimes wishing that the secondary characters got more screentime, and a little more respect. There’s a running gag in Atlantis that no-one likes Zelenka and I don’t understand why. He’s a genuinely nice guy, a good scientist, a loyal friend, has none of Rodney’s arrogance. He gets the job done but no-one likes him or trusts him. It’s because he’s a secondary character, they can make fun of him and we’re not supposed to care – but I do care.

Shining the spotlight on the unappreciated
The stargate universe is massive but it still feels familiar and comfortable. It is living, breathing world and one we recognise because it’s not just the main characters we can see. On SG1 there was Master Sgt. Walter Harriman, aka the chevron guy, who was never in the credits but was there for the whole of the shows run. His name even got changed a few times as the writers didn’t keep it straight, he wasn’t important enough.

I could list a dozen or more characters that were recurring guest stars. Sometimes they didn’t even get a line, they were just there in the background. Some of these recurring guests crossed over from SG1 to Atlantis or vice versa, helping create the solid, stable, breathing world and make it seem real and alive. If it was just the main characters running around, and everyone else was new every week, then it wouldn’t feel so connected, it would be like floating in a bubble.

Stargate isn’t the only show to do this, though I confess it’s the first show that I noticed did it. However, CSI has done the same. All those lab techs that show up repeatedly, not every episode but are still there, they ground the show’s world. Then there’s other guest stars that are sometimes only in one episode a season but are brought in for a specific purpose. There’s this professor on CSI, an expert in handwriting analysis, who has been in half a dozen episodes over the shows run. The same actor just in a scene or two, very occasionally but that repetition means a lot.

I used to be so impressed when I saw on Stargate that they’d managed to get the same guest actors back. To be honest I’m still kinda impressed especially as when it’s just random scenes, spread out over multiple seasons. Major Davis appeared in a walking down the corridor scene in one of the TV movies, he didn’t have a line and was never seen again but he was there.

Is there a point to this rambling?
Well I wanted to make a post and this was on my mind. It’s coming up to November and I’ll need to think of something to write for NaNo. One of the pieces of advice I’ve been given about writing is to treat characters like they cost you money. You don’t name a character unless they are important, you give them lines like they cost you a thousand bucks a word. Keep character lists tight, one of the common first draft mistakes is character overload etc.

Well, I’m questioning that advice. Sure, books are a different medium than TV but they are both telling a story, and they both want to conjure up a living, breathing world. I have no idea how many characters there have been on Stargate. I’m not talking about guests of the week but ones that repeat, if only once and become part of the fabric of the show. They have names, they have titles, they have lines, they have job responsibilities. These characters make up the background of the world, just as much as the sets do.

It’s something to think about anyway. How sometimes an incidental character can be one we look forward to watching. Now I love the character of Sam Carter but when she confessed to not liking Zelenka, for absolutely no reason, I had to headcanon it away or I would have lost respect for her. I would have thought badly of a main character over how they treat a secondary ‘non-important’ character. The writers thought they were making a joke, they thought we’d side with Sam and laugh at Zelenka, I did the opposite. That is also worth thinking about.

In conclusion
Characters matter. It’s the characters that really drive any show, any book etc. as without them however compelling the backdrop, there’s nothing invested in it. Sometimes the reader/viewer invests in characters they are perhaps not supposed to care about. Even if they do not invest in them, having recurring characters that aren’t main cast, ground the world, make it real and are as important as a well defined location.

You don’t have to shoot characters that show up with names and jobs and the odd line. They aren’t promising main character status because they have these things, they are just part of the world. The main characters don’t exist in a bubble and developing good secondary characters is as vital as developing the main cast.

Zelenka, Lorne, Lee, Harriman, Davis, Emerson, Cauldwell, Marks, Siler, Novak, Kavanaugh etc. and these are only humans assigned to the SGC. Think of all the recurring Tok’ra, Asgard, Tollan, Jaffa, Goa’uld, Ori and Alteran.

It matters.