I wrote this a little while ago for a very specific purpose. But I just had a discussion with somebody about one of my “secondary” characters, and I got reminded of this little essay. And I thought all y’all might like to read it…
College of Sidekicks and Secondary Characters – Commencement Address
Dear graduating class,
I am so very happy to see you. To know that you are out there. That you exist. Because – make no mistake – in a world that seems to be geared only towards superstardom, without the foundation of you there is nothing at all. There can be no superstars without the support of a context – a context that you and only you can provide.
I can’t tell from here why all of you are in this place.
You may have ended up at this particular institution of learning simply because your applications for the more upmarket and ivy-leagueish College of Protagonists wasn’t quite up to scratch. Don’t take that as a failure. Sometimes superstars are jerks; sometimes they are as two-dimensional as the medium they appear in, and aren’t worth the price of their education. All too often a Protagonist can be asked to carry the weight of a work of fiction for which he or she is simply too fragile – and the whole thing collapses on top of them. Sometimes they’re going to be pointed at and jeered at, and let’s face it, if there are pies and rotten tomatoes coming in the direction of the story you’re in, they’re far more likely to be aimed at the one standing squarely center-stage. Yeah, there’s some glory. Yeah, there’s better name recognition (although that isn’t a given by any means). Graduating from the College of Sidekicks and Secondary Characters is an honorable yeoman achievement – and if you still cherish dreams of superstardom, yes, I tell you this, if you are brilliant enough, if your presence illuminates the story sufficiently, it is entirely possible for a Secondary Character to be promoted to Protagonist while in service, as it were. It’s been known to happen. Sometimes one of your ilk can take over the entire story and bend it to quite a different end, if the Character is a sufficiently strong one. But even if it never does you live in the memories and the hearts of the audience of the works you’re in, and without you there would be no work. What would Cinderella be without her stepsisters? Or Red Riding Hood without the grandmother? Or Frodo Baggins without Sam? Or Hogwarts without its array of quirky staff members? Or Pern without its dragons? Or let me introduce you to a few who have graced the pages of my own stories. Favrin Rashin and Ansen and Queen Senena and the an’sen’thari of the world of ‘Changer of Days’. Xuelian and Aylun and Xuan from ‘Embers of Heaven’. A Messenger called Ariel and the vibrant, passionate Dorotea from ‘Midnight at Spanish Gardens’. Grandmother Spider, Coyote, Diego de los Reyes, the entire race of the Alphiri from the Worldweavers books – and for that matter, Nikola Tesla and his pigeons. Just look at the gallery of the graduates who came before you, adorning the walls of this hall. Look, and be proud. Because some day your picture might hang right there amongst them.
Were you promoted to this College from the Community College classes of Crowds and Extras? If so, be proud of that, too, exceedingly proud, because you were singled out for your potential, and given lines where otherwise you might have had none, and a space has been cleared for you to make your mark in the story. Be proud of this, and yet be grateful, and use your chance wisely. You have been handpicked, chosen, had the spotlight shone upon you – because someone thought you were necessary, you were absolutely perfect, you were what was needed for the story to proceed and develop. Without you, the named Protagonist might have failed. WOULD have failed. Without you. You, who sometimes step forward with such heedless courage, with such intoxicating faith. You, who are willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of the story, for the good of others. You, who are the cogs and wheels and levers in the machinery of Story, without whom Story does not move at all. Yes, look again at that gallery on the wall. Take a closer look at someone like my Prince Favrin Rashin, who walked into the book in which he appears as a throwaway name mentioned in passing in a history lesson… and ended up as being considered, very seriously, for a position of Protagonist in a novel of his own. He never saw it coming. But oh, look how he handled it, and grew to fill his increased role, and simply shouldered the extra responsibilities when they were heaped upon him without wincing or a word of complaint. Take what role you are initially offered, play it well and sincerely, and who knows what it might end up being. Just remember, you are a crew of ever-present, ever-ready understudies, prepared to put yourselves in harness and pull for all you are worth if the Protagonist becomes momentarily or permanently incapacitated. It’s ALL up to you.
You are the salt of the earth, the thing without which there is no life, no love, no world. You are what makes the world go round. Live your lives fiercely and well, and if called upon to do so die a memorable death. Words are your weapons, story is your battlefield, go forth, Sidekicks and Secondary Characters, go forth and conquer. Because you can. Because it is in you, in all of you. And so is the wisdom to know that the conquest sometimes happens quietly, from a position a step behind the Protagonist, while they are busy doing other things. You are, all of you, amazing. Never forget that.
The world beckons, and it is yours for the taking.
To your scattered fictions go – and lend your grace and power to every story that you share. Make it BETTER. Only you can.