Have you ever read a novel and felt like it was… just that. Like it was a nice little story: prepackaged and wrapped in a frilly red bow. It felt… fine while you were reading it, maybe even believable, but when you close the book and move on with your life, it isn’t hard to believe that the characters all sit around and wait for you to open the book again. Like they don’t have lives of their own.
While a story like that can be a “fun” read, and might even be a page-turner (while it lasts) it will never fully immerse you, as it’s reader. Why? Because everything in it, from character interactions to plot points, will be reminding you that it’s just a book… nothing more.
Sounds awful, right? To make it worse, it’s actually very easy to write a story this way… and you probably won’t even know you’re doing it. Why? Because the process of writing a complete story arc naturally creates a story world that begins and ends inside the pages of your novel. (Yeah, I wish there had been a disclaimer too.) In one of my recent projects, Wanderlust, the effect was intensified by my hero’s journey to and from Fairie, which introduced and then bid farewell to the story world. The entire plot felt… contained. It started when my hero (Charles) entered Fairie, and ended when he left. The story world itself didn’t have much life of its own… so it didn’t have much life at all. The end result was that the story just kind of happened. I (as author and reader) didn’t have any lasting stakes invested in it, because it wasn’t real.
But how do you break the illusion? How do you keep readers from feeling like your story world has a beginning and an end, when your novel definitely does? Tertiary characters.
Not your hero (main character), not your hero’s friends (secondary characters), but your hero’s loud classmate who shows up in that one scene in chapter three. Yeah, that guy. How can he help bring your story world to life? He’s in the unique position of not really being part of your story… he doesn’t have much of a role, and for the most part, his life is unaffected by the story’s stakes. That gives him the opportunity to make your story world expand beyond your plot… which is what you need from him. Here’s how you (and he) can get it done.
Give him a name
If he’s going to have a life outside the story, he’s going to need a name to go by. On the first pass, some of these tertiary characters don’t need names. (And names can be so hard to find!) But don’t let them get away with that. Give them names, all of them. (At least any of them who your hero would have known… don’t want to break POV.) Giving out names is the first step to quickly creating characters real enough to exist outside your novel.
Give him a characteristic
You don’t want to bog down your narrative with a bunch of well-developed characters who show up for three paragraphs, but you do want all of your characters to at least have the potential to exist beyond the pages of the story. To do that, you need to give them something about them that defines them. Are they caring, loud, or shy? Do they have kids? Are they total nerds? Pick one characteristic and write your character as that characteristic. Sure, it’s not a great way to develop a main character, but for someone who only shows up once or twice, it’s a great way to create a surface personality, which is all you need.
Give him friends
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to give your tertiary character friends. If he’s the loud kid at school, give him another classmate to hang with. If he’s a police officer on patrol, give him a buddy riding shotgun. Then, as they interact, hint at history. Let them interact with each other like… friends.
Using tertiary characters is the fastest, most effective way to develop your story world outside your story… which is the best way to bring your story to life.