Why it’s Important for Reoccurring Characters to Inhabit your World

Why it’s Important for Reoccurring Characters to Inhabit your World

Writing any story involves a complex balancing act between various different elements. Plot and pacing are two of the bigger ones, so they receive a lot of conversation. But lots of things contribute to the overall quality of the composition. Atmosphere is also important, and usually balanced according to individual scenes.

Characters are another of the most important elements of every story. It’s important to create a cast of characters the audience can relate to and identify with. The most important character is usually the main character because you spend the most time with them. But most stories don’t involve a singular character in an isolated world. Most stories involve interactions with various other people ranging from friends to strangers.

I tend to think of my manuscript cast as a series of concentric circles. At the center is my protagonist (or protagonists, since I tend to write stories with multiple main characters). The circle closest to them contains my secondary characters. This circle is usually made up of the close friends and family members of my protagonists. But it also includes the antagonists and the people closest to them.

It’s important to develop your secondary characters as richly as your main characters. Each of them should have their own story, even if only a fraction of it takes place on camera. That’s the only way to make them feel like full-fledged, living people.

But the world isn’t made up of only people your heroes and villains know. In order for the world to feel like a living, breathing entity, it needs incidental characters as well. The barista who regularly works at the coffee shop where your MC gets their morning coffee, for example. Or the security guard that checks them in every day.

The Balance is Hard to Strike

Not every character in your story is going to have back story or character development. It simply doesn’t make sense for someone you only see three times to get that level of development. Most of my incidental characters don’t even get names in my first drafts. They have to survive to revisions to be granted the honor of a memorable designation.

But even if your character travels a lot during their story, it makes sense that they would encounter some people repeatedly. Their landlord, for example. Or their neighbors. Surely they have coworkers they sometimes have to interact with and/or a boss they answer to.

Strangers are fine. Not every character has to be ultimately important to the plot or the people participating in it. But familiar faces are important too. They make it less confusing than constantly throwing new names at your audience. They can also make aspects of your world feel reassuringly familiar.

And your characters should always feel familiar with their world, even if the reader isn’t.

The number of character circles surrounding your protagonists that appear in your work depends on how complex it is. A stand-alone novel might have an extremely tight cast of characters, and anyone who has a name might ultimately prove to be important. A trilogy might have a larger cast of characters. Some might move in and out of the narrative. Some might only ever be encountered once or twice.

A long-running series with dozens of books or thousands of pages might prove even more complicated with several tiers of secondary characters and a laundry list of incidental appearances. But it’s still important to have familiar faces you regularly check in with. No matter the size or scope of your story, it keeps the reader grounded in your world.

Learning by Example

I’m relatively new to the world of crime shows. I started with Castle. Partly because my grandmother loved that show before she passed. Partly because one of the main characters is a writer, which made me curious.

One of my favorite things about that show was the secondary characters. There was a small but dedicated cast of regular characters who appeared to develop relationships with the main characters and/or help them solve their various cases. Some were simply coworkers. Others drifted into the show for one plot but popped up again later to develop back stories.

Many of the secondary characters in that show eventually received some sort of plot that revealed their past and developed their character. It didn’t happen often, but it was enough to excite me. And it made those characters feel like more than just set-dressing.

I have since learned that some shows handle this better than others. After Castle, I moved on to Criminal Minds. I heard good things about the later seasons, and I found the premise of the show interesting. (For anyone unfamiliar, it’s about an FBI unit who performs profiling and usually hunts serial killers.)

This show boasts a great core cast of characters that regularly support each other and received a steady drip feed of character development. But it sorely lacks in the area of reoccurring secondary characters. There are really only a handful that pop up more than twice. And only one of them ever really received any form of character development (that being Spencer’s mom).

While I ultimately enjoyed Criminal Minds, partly because of the strong team dynamic developed between the characters, I often noticed the lack of regular side characters. The world often felt sparse and somewhat lacking.

A Lack of Secondary Characters is Notable

In December of 2022, Criminal Minds returned from retirement with a newer, upgraded version of the show designed specifically for streaming services. This means that the show was able to be a little darker and a little grittier. It also meant that the characters could swear freely, which was kind of nice.

Criminal Minds Evolution was distinctly different from previous seasons of Criminal Minds in several ways. The biggest was that the 10 episode season featured an ongoing plot, something the show struggled to achieve while it was still on network television. To my delight, each episode still involved solving some sort of mystery, but each tied into the overall plot and pushed the story toward completion.

Also with Criminal Minds Evolution, the writers introduced more consistent secondary character appearances and development. For the first time, it felt like JJ’s husband, Will, was actually a part of the story instead of just a person they remembered to dangle in front of the audience from time to time. I got the impression the show was attempting to develop a more consistent secondary cast that isn’t just meant to serve as temporary antagonists when it’s convenient for the script.

I considered this a positive change, and I hope it continues in future seasons of the show. They’ve been renewed for at least one more. And if the story continues to be good, I’d love to see how the show develops.

After I finished watching Criminal Minds, I needed a new show to delve into so I chose one that’s slightly shorter but fills the same kind of niche. The new candidate was 911, a show about first responders in LA.

Don’t be Afraid to Develop some Secondary Characters

One of the first things I noticed about 911 is that they focused a lot more on the home life of the characters instead of just showing them while they were at work. This instantly introduced a series of secondary reoccurring characters. Not all of them got a ton of character development, but that’s okay. They played an active role in the ongoing plots of the show, and I appreciated that.

Each character in 911 gets a story for each season. Sometimes they’re small and simple. They don’t always get mentioned in every episode. But usually the appropriate secondary characters appear throughout the season as part of that plot. Also sometimes they appear for large group celebrations – which is nice to see.

After Criminal Minds, I was actually both surprised and impressed by the level of attention paid to the secondary characters in 911. It was refreshing not only to see the same characters popping up over and over, but also to see them starting to develop stories of their own.

Perhaps it was easier for 911 to develop their secondary characters because the story takes place in a single city. But LA is fairly large, and the Criminal Minds team always returns to DC at the end of each episode, so I feel like the balance could have been struck.

Of course, you have to be careful that you don’t develop your secondary and incidental characters to the point where they’re overshadowing your main characters or their plot. You don’t want readers to be annoyed by the amount of time you spend on secondary characters. As with all the elements of storytelling, there’s a balance to be struck. But I would say it’s definitely important not to neglect your secondary and incidental characters.

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