Using Side Characters to Provide Perspective

Perspective can be one of the most important aspects of writing an in-depth, detailed narrative, especially when world building is a big part of your writing.

World building is the reason I started writing.

So, that means sometimes I want to write about the story underneath the plot–the cultural or historical context, even if it just pertains to one character’s arc.

My current work-in-progress, The Warden of Everfeld: Legacy, primarily follows Arden. Legacy picks up two years after the events of Memento, in which Arden had no small part.

Now thirteen and figuring herself out, Arden is determined to find out more about her family, and the fire that killed them when she was a child. As an orphan and runaway, Arden has only had her vague memories and vivid but ephemeral dreams to rely on.

This is what drives her: she needs to find out what happened to her family.

But why should that matter to the reader? What are the stakes of one girl searching for the full truth of how her parents and brother died?

This is where some necessary perspective comes in. WoEL is a character-driven narrative–3rd-person limited–where Arden’s narration only provides information that she already knows.

The chapter is told from her perspective, so obviously she doesn’t yet know exactly how her family died (aside from the fact that their home burned down).

Letting Arden’s story play out until she discovers the truth on her own could interesting, but that brings us back to the initial problem: what are the stakes?

Defining the Stakes

As far as Arden knows, the stakes are only that she doesn’t know how the fire started. That is likely not enough for an average reader to care.

However, I don’t want to simply provide an omniscient explanation of why Arden’s story is important. That’s not how I want to tell my story, and if it was, I could do it in a single paragraph and be done with it. Who wants to read that?

To remedy this, I’ve outlined a roster of secondary point-of-view characters who can tell the reader why this all matters. These characters may have previous knowledge of Arden’s family, or they may have been in Arden’s home when the fire started.

While none of them individually know the entire truth, together, they can provide a well-rounded perspective of why the death of Arden’s family is important to anyone besides her.

Was the cause of their deaths nefarious? Does this knowledge pose a risk to Arden? Does it pose a risk to anyone else?

Letting the reader learn some of these details before Arden is what can help drive the story. It can also inject the narrative with some opposing points of view, or at least differing opinions on why something happened.

Characters Provide More Perspective

To review, secondary POV characters can lend some much-needed perspective and depth to a protagonist’s arc.

  • Secondary characters can provide knowledge the protagonist doesn’t have
  • Secondary characters may view an event with a different opinion from the protagonist, complicating their relationship and causing conflict
  • Revealing the stakes of a protagonist’s arc to the reader can build tension
  • Secondary characters provide an avenue of storytelling outside of expository info-dumps, which can slow down the narrative and bore the reader

Obviously, your secondary characters should be fully fleshed out, with distinct backgrounds, personality traits, and quirks of their own. Inserting Character 127 into your plot just to give a lengthy explanation before disappearing again into the ether is not good storytelling.

So, when using secondary characters to support your protagonist’s arc and provide perspective, think beyond their relationship with the protagonist. Think about what they can bring to the story as individuals.

Steve D

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