Writing Secondary Characters – Interview with Scott Lynch

Republic of ThievesWinner of the Sydney J. Bounds Best Newcomer Award and 2007 World Fantasy Award finalist, Scott Lynch is the author of the Gentleman Bastard Sequence, several short stories and an online serial, Queen of the Iron Sands.

He has a strong following who call themselves ‘priests of the crooked author’ and many others, too, have been eagerly awaiting his next book, The Republic of Thieves, which will be out in October 2013.

We can safely say that your novels have a balance of in-depth main and secondary, then background characters, all receiving their due page (screen) time. When planning (or writing/editing), how do you get that balance humming?

The magic, I think, lies in the editing process… first I tend to ensure that I simply have the necessary secondary characters in place to serve their story functions. Then, during my assorted editing passes, I try to polish them up, wipe out boring or cliched dialogue, and somehow set them apart from their surroundings and from similar characters, elsewhere in the story and in stories like it. It’s no different than cleaning up any other aspect of my prose, really.

When creating your characters, how far do you immediately go into their plot arcs, backstory and characteristics? Do you find they come on as you begin including them into the novel, or do you prefer to have paragraphs/pages of their history beforehand? What are some key character pieces of information you start with, if any?

I don’t tend to construct relatively vast background stories for my characters these days. I have my world notes, of course, and some very specific notions of where each character comes from and integrates into the big picture, but I tend to regard too much faffing about with unseen backstory as detrimental to my work process. It’s time and energy spent not actually putting the words that really count on the page, and I’m eager to just get on with it. I tend to trust myself to add details, note new connections, and generally enrich things as I go along… so in terms of new characters, major and minor, I really do start with a short, simple, punchy core of facts and concepts… and from there I just bloody well go. I am past the point of giving a shit about what someone’s favorite flavor of ice cream is before I write them; if it’s important it will come out in the text and if it’s not important, enough said!

What do you set out to achieve when creating your characters?

I want them to sound like reasonable facsimiles of human beings, and give them impression of having motives and psychologies of their own. Agency is the trick; a character is invested with agency when the author and the character alike realize that the character has some power to affect change. Without agency, you’re writing scenery, not characters. I try to give as many characters as I can at least one memorable scene, tic, detail, or bit of dialogue that makes them stand out on the page, whenever possible.

Character voice – hard enough to get right with main characters, let alone secondary. Are there any tips for this you can share with any struggling writers?

Re-read the stuff you like, and break it down to discover why you like it. You’ve got to evolve that ruthless analytical process… you’ve got to learn to identify techniques, spot tricks, and read actively, hungrily as a writer rather than just a reader. You can’t avoid this if you want to develop as a writer; you can’t shelter yourself from the need to develop critical faculties. Learning to take stories apart and identify the components doesn’t kill the magic… it opens up whole new levels of aesthetic appreciation.

Your authorial voice emerges when you begin figuring out not just what you want to say, but how you want to say it, and why you’re making the given artistic decisions on a sentence, paragraph, chapter, and story level. You can’t stumble around in a daze, unsure of your motives or technique. You’ve got to apply yourself.

Female characters, a topic that always comes up yet still somehow seems to require more discussion.  Joss Whedon has replied: ‘Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters? A: Because you’re still asking me that question.’

And then there’s: ‘George Stroumboulopoulos: There’s one thing that’s interesting about your books. I noticed that you write women really well and really different. Where does that come from? George R.R. Martin: You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.’

And you wrote this reply regarding how females could certainly be pirates… what else would you like to say on the subject?

Wow, this is a subject that defies the short capsule approach, so I’ll just lay out a few points as I see them.

We have a major, flagrant, unsubtle problem in our culture and its media, where the representation of women is concerned. We’re assured time and time again that all the goddamn male action heroes, male writers, male directors, male casts, male-focused story elements, etc. are the result of some purely emotionless, rational decision-making in the impeccably clean Laboratories of Capitalism, but the plain fact is that dollars from women are simply worth less to most of the entertainment industry than dollars from men, even though they’re the exact same dollars. Period.

Male characters are allowed by the audience to be complex, shifting, mercurial, angry, emotional, manipulative, demanding, and troublesome. Female characters given the same multi-faceted psychological treatment are harshly criticized as being faithless, annoying bitches. I have already begun to see a review here and there in this vein concerning Sabetha… and as near as I can tell, they have all been written by female readers. Ponder that, if you haven’t already been forced to ponder it all your life… girls are brought up to detest themselves and their own human potential for complexity. They’re being trained to fervently hate female characters who don’t serve as unwavering support mechanisms for male characters. They’re being trained to hate themselves.

The older I get the angrier I get about this. The more I write the more I try to address it.

Women have attained new heights of numerical and financial participation in all things geeky… comic books, games, movies, SF/F literature, anime, and all things related, and yet we are all fed, time and time again, the big lies: Women don’t like SF/F. Women don’t like genre movies. Women don’t game. Women don’t read comic books. DC comics has basically laughed off any suggestion that it pitch its books at anything but the hypothetical 45-year-old white guy who lives in a womanless world, but one glance at the crowds attending a ComicCon or a GenCon or an anime con shows how crazy that is. It’s long-term economic suicide to pretend women don’t have enthusiasm and buying power. It’s short and long-term cultural myopia.

The whole situation depresses me because of the obvious implications for human rights and dignity.

The situation also depresses me as a good old honest capitalist. Women make up a substantial portion of my audience. I don’t believe their money has cooties. I will happily try to put something for everyone in my work, and write to represent and please all sexes and persuasions, and try to give everyone moments of prominence, achievement, heroism, and agency. Of course, I also try to give everyone moments of weakness, failure, and villainy. Writing with an eye on equality means you grant everyone the chance to be a rounded human portrait, to be evil as well as good, to be reviled as well as idealized.

This is the merest fingernail-paring of what remains to be said on the subject, but it’ll do for now.

Sometimes the characters we only see once are those who make the reader laugh so hard they have to put down the book in order to breathe – or to run and show someone. Such as Harza’s No-Hope pawnshop (Chapter 4.4 – The Lies of Locke Lamora). We know him for two pages, give or take a paragraph, and these two pages sell the essence of Camorr and the people Locke and his band deal with. Cue Daleks demanding for you to explain, explain! EXPLAIN! How do you make this work so damn well?

A lot of epic fantasy has the habit of being portentous and self-important, and I’m trying hard to restore naturalistic humor to a place in the modern fantasy canon. Or at least in my work. Good god, did I really write something as pretentious as wanting to adjust the canon? “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” and all that. Anyhow, it’s a pretty simple writing technique, actually… varying the emotional notes in the work so that the contrasts highlight and strengthen one another. You can’t just build and build and build in one tone or mode of story; it wears the reader out. Even breakneck action becomes wearing and tedious if it goes on for too long. The reader needs breaks, moments to reflect, pauses to refresh the attention span.

In your writing, has a secondary or background character ever ‘taken over’, and become a primary character or otherwise changed the direction or tone substantially – or have they tried, and you’ve beaten them back successfully with a stick? If so, who?

There is a character who re-emerges at the end of The Republic of Thieves who was not originally, er, scheduled to make such a big appearance. However, once the idea for the scene had popped into my head, there was no chasing it out… it was too big and cool to run away from. Zamira Drakasha also evolved well beyond her original mandate because she’s so much fun to have… doing anything, really. It’s why she’ll be back later in the series. I don’t mind spoiling that.

Jean, also, has substantially evolved since his initial conception as a fairly coarse sidekick… I decided to swap up some of the usual tropes of the burly bruiser and give him a brain and a delicate sense of tact, and frankly… I just didn’t expect the popularity he’s garnered. It’s definitely shaped the way I write him. For instance, in my original notes from eight years ago (give or take), I meant to write a scene where teenage Locke helps awkward teenage Jean lose his virginity, with a clever series of lies and exaggerations to slip Jean into someone’s bed… but when it finally came time to write the teenage years of the Bastards in Republic, that approach struck me as a big mistake… Jean, as we have come to know him over two books, doesn’t need anybody’s subterfuge or charity where his love life is concerned.

What happens to your characters is heart-wrenching – possibly even more so because then you tend to kill a hefty amount. In the first novel we’re introduced to The Gentlemen Bastards only to have half of them dead by the end. Do you feel character-lose is necessary? At any stage, were our beloved Bug and the Sanza twins forecast to live, or were they doomed from the start? What about Nazca, and will we ever see her again in flashbacks?

Nazca will be seen again in The Republic of Thieves and The Ministry of Necessity. Bug and the Sanzas… well, they were doomed from the start. I actually rewrote Bug’s last lines to make them a bit less stoically heroic and more pathetic. The Gentleman Bastard sequence… is essentially meant to be a refutation and an alternative to anodyne fantasy where nothing ever changes and people only die in comfortingly heroic and dignified ways… life is messy. Life is unfair. My job is not to soothe you, my dear, poor readers, it’s to take you on a ride. It’s not meant to be unrelenting in any direction… many characters will survive. Many will not. Some moments will be warm and cuddly. Others will be hard as hell, for you and me both. From time to time I have stared long at a character slowly descending into the maw of the implacable murder machine, and wondered if I might be able to flip a few switches and pop them out without screwing up the story… but most of those meditations, and their results, I am never going to spoil. 😉

What suggestions can you give to writers in general when creating secondary characters?

I think I covered this already pretty thoroughly in several earlier questions. I don’t view the creation of secondary characters as any different than creating other characters, or creating anything– think hard. Aim to be vivid. Kill cliches. Remove the boring parts. Polish, polish, polish.

If you wish to answer this question, it can be added to the interview after the third book is out (under a spoiler warning for those who don’t read the book immediately): Sabetha. We’ve finally met her, and it was worth the wait. Did you approach her any differently because she had been hidden and only alluded to for so long?

Well, that was part of the charm. I’ve really enjoyed the years of seething frustration she’s inspired! Heh. Really, Sabetha could only be the way she ended up… I tried to fit her into the prologue of Lies but it just didn’t work… I knew I wanted her to be an off-stage presence for the first book or two, and showing a little of her and then hiding her was much worse than never showing her at all. Keeping her mysterious lets us have a sort of double game with her, because not only are we not seeing her in the text, we’re experiencing her through the thoughts and recollections of someone who might not be objective or reliable. So, the anticipation is not merely to see her but to discover how much of what we think we know from Locke and Jean is accurate.

Was it hard to develop Sabetha because she wasn’t in the first two novels? How much of her existed before Republic of Thieves?

Let us return to this question at a later date or a later interview; Sabetha has yet to be unleashed to the world at large. Let her have her coming-out party, and I’ll be ready then to say more about her.

Question for Our Readers:

Do characters make or break your ability to enjoy a novel? Can a novel rely on plot or message alone, or must characters be relatable and/or likeable?


8 thoughts on “Writing Secondary Characters – Interview with Scott Lynch”

  1. I enjoy the story more with likable/relatable characters, but I think it’s possible. Daemon was a great freaking story (read like watching a movie. Couldn’t put it down.) without a character much grabbing me.

  2. I personally prefer relatable characters over likeable ones, and I guess I personally relate well to characters with severe social and emotional deficits! 🙂 I’m excited by the number of troubled heroes we’re seeing in some of the great new TV dramas, and in fiction too. Those characters inspire me as they struggle to overcome their lack of “likeability.”

  3. I really feel deeply for female characters being typified as token damsels bar a few exceptions. It seems that once people are used to it, they tend to enjoy objectifying them (and I cannot be a hypocrite on this end as well).
    This is where G.R.R Martin gains my respect when it comes to characters like Dany, Cersei and even Sansa. As an aspiring author, I’m still trying to get the formula right especially since it’s just kicking off at the 2nd arc.
    As for characters making or breaking a plot, I really agree wholeheartedly with the author interviewed here. If you want a scenery, go take up drawing instead of writing. One of the biggest problems every writer, including me, has to face this-are we getting too comfortable with something tried and tested? People tend to say creative people are more prone to experimenting and I think this is why such people will excel in writing if they want to.
    After some time in writing, I discovered it’s far easier for me to shut out my mind and go along with the flow. In fact, I believe reading over the lines while envisioning how the character say his/her line truly helps.

  4. LOVE this: “A lot of epic fantasy has the habit of being
    portentous and self-important, and I’m trying hard to restore
    naturalistic humor to a place in the modern fantasy canon.” This is one of the “biggies” I strive to achieve in my writing. You can get in a lot trouble in some circles by trying to inject a little humor (been there, done that) but I feel that laughter is one of the more enjoyable ways warm your way into a reader’s heart and soul.

    I also appreciate the comments on women, especially the comment that our money does not have cooties. I was worried about that. Seriously. I’m relieved to discover it’s just another chapter of “The All-Boys Club.”

     Thanks for a great interview.  Go Geeky Girls!!

  5. Hi
    Great interview, thanks.
    I haven’t read any of Scott’s stuff, but this has led me to go and find some!
    I was particularly inspired by his comments on female characters. I think a mistake some authors can make in trying to create strong female characters is in giving them genuine arcs and story lines, but failing to give them any flaws or darker sides, or real complexity. Just having a woman leading the story doesn’t make her a strong character!
    I often find the secondary characters can make or break a story, as the ones you remember, and, as Scott says, the ones who can bring a change in the tone, or respite from the main plot line. 
    Lots of great stuff here, thanks again.

  6. Great interview! I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. I think
    Scott brings up a lot of great points about how to flesh out characters
    so they don’t seem like lifeless cardboard cutouts. 
    In regards to characters making or breaking my enjoyment of a novel, I would say most novels I’ve enjoyed over the years have characters that are engaging from the word go. Sometimes  I may put down a novel that takes too long to show me the characters’ personalities or goals. A good plot I think is always anchored by strong characters. 
    Characters with clear motives are often relatable to me even if they’re not entirely likable. I enjoy characters that have very strong convictions, regardless if it’s saving the day or ripping off money from rich people.


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