Audiences often learn about characters indirectly, through the stories other people share. Some are objective historical accounts, but others rely on personal opinions, observations, and assumptions, including stereotypes, reputations, and relationships.
Relationships are the most immediate form of secondhand knowledge. Everyone lives in a network of connections, ranging from family and close friends, to business associates who provide an occasional product or service. When someone needs a doctor or mechanic they turn to friends and coworkers for a recommendation. They rely on referrals from people they trust.
In stories, a referral doesn’t just introduce a new character, it also reveals more about the character providing the referral. The audience sees a character directly, and through the eyes of another character.
For example, in Harry Potter, the protagonist meets Hagrid, and forms an opinion about him. Then the protagonist meets Draco Malfoy, who expresses some derisive views about Hagrid. In this case the order is reversed, but imagine if Harry had met Draco first. As it is the clash between Draco’s views and Harry’s own serve to characterize Draco very quickly.
Whenever possible it’s good to bring new characters in as part of an existing network, or build relationships between characters. Consider Harry Potter again. In the beginning Harry and Ron are friends, so when Hermoine causes trouble it’s just annoying. But then Hermoine becomes friends with Harry and Ron as well. Now whenever two characters have a conflict, the third is caught in the middle. This creates a richer narrative, without obvious or easy solutions.
4-2. Protagonists & Relationships.
Every character has three types of relationships; professional, social, and familial, but not all characters are equal, (see 102-02, Character Hierarchy). When it comes to most characters, an author can choose which relationship types to show, but not so with protagonists. As the primary character, audiences need to see at least one example of each relationship type.
If the protagonist has no friends, introduce a one sided friendship, where one character (protagonist or associate), wants to be friends, while the other does not. Introduce at least one character the protagonist admires, and another that they loath or despise.
After relationships come reputations. A reputation is a series of assumptions that apply to a specific person, usually someone famous. They start as firsthand accounts, but as the stories spread through word of mouth they become distorted, until it’s hard to know whether they’re true or not. Reputations are particularly common among villains.
In Lord of the Rings the primary villain, Souron, is never actually seen. His only role in the story is as a voice giving instructions, and yet his reputation makes him one of the most feared and powerful characters in the story. The same can be said for Harry Potter’s Voldemort, who spends most of the series as an unseen leader.
Stereotypes are the most distant form of secondhand knowledge, and the least reliable, but they do exist. Stereotypes are the assumptions and expectations that others apply to a character based on a basic characteristic, such as gender, age, cultural or religious connections, or height or weight. Stereotypes are not who a character is, but most characters will feel the pressure to conform to stereotypes, and they will choose to accept and resist different aspects of the stereotypes being applied to them (see 102-4 Writing Past Stereotypes).
Major characters use stereotypes to fuel their personal journey, as they struggle to reconcile the conflict between who they are, who others think they are, and who they want to be. Minor characters are defined by one or two traits, which often fit within a known stereotype, allowing them to fade into the background.
Whenever introducing a new character, it’s important to decide who they are in light of audience expectations and assumptions. For example, religious figures are often perceived as either stern and judgmental, or kind and benevolent. A major character can show elements of both, but a minor character must be one or the other. It’s important to make sure that minor characters are not too interesting, or else they will distract audiences from what really matters in the story.
Hobbies & Habits 103-04