Gail Z. Martin: The Content of Your Character


Your fictional world is populated by a lot of people. Of course, there’s your main character. You probably have a pretty good lock on who he/she is and where he/she came from. You might even have a solid grasp on your main character’s inner circle—the friends, family and enemies who are at the center of the plot.

But what about the other folks? If you remember Mr. Rogers, sing along with me… “Who are the people in your neighborhood? The people that you meet when you’re walking down the street, they’re the people that you meet each day.”

Who’s in your neighborhood? I’m talking about the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. The barkeeper and the local strumpet, the village idiot and the town Reign of FINALdrunk, the pig boy and the goat herder, the nosy spinster next door and the blowhard who sits by the well and expounds his opinions. These people might only get a brief walk-on part in one paragraph, but if you can make them feel real, your whole world gets a reality boost.

The more real your incidental characters are, the more your readers can identify them with people that they know, and the whole scene takes on a new dimension of reality. Not only that, but when incidental characters move beyond cardboard stand-ins, they end up contributing to the plot in unexpected ways.

Suddenly, these are “real” people with personalities, opinions and quirks. They behave in certain predictable (or predictably unpredictable) ways. They interact with your main characters and let the reader see those protagonists in a whole new way. Sometimes, they steal the scene and keep coming back book after book, no matter what your original intentions!

If you intend to write a series, having recurring incidental characters makes readers feel like each return visit is coming back to a welcoming place populated by people they know. We learn more about the world by the people who inhabit it. Their everyday interactions with the people around them lend a depth that makes the world seem real and lived-in. And when your character is greeted by a doorman or barista, a postal carrier or police officer or someone else he/she knows in the course of going about everyday business, your character suddenly has a history beyond the story.

We also learn a lot by how someone treats incidental people, whether they are barmaids or beggars, merchants or street urchins. Is your character only nice to people who can return the favor or provide a stepping stone? Does he/she stand up for the underdog? Does your character like to gossip? Show your character’s character through the people that he/she meets each day!


Gail Z. Martin is the author of Ice Forged in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga and Reign of Ash (Orbit Books, 2014), plus The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven & Dark Lady’s Chosen ) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn and The Dread) from Orbit Books. Gail’s new urban fantasy novel, Deadly Curiosities, debuts from Solaris Books in June, 2014. Iron and Blood, a Steampunk novel, will be published by Solaris in 2015. She is also the author of two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures. Find her at, on Facebook as Winter Kingdoms, and on Twitter @GailZMartin.




4 comments to Gail Z. Martin: The Content of Your Character

  • Razziecat

    Another great post! 🙂 I get a kick out of writing recurring incidental characters; they come in handy in so many ways. I don’t have to create a new character for a brief walk-on, I already know how my MC interacts with them, they’re great for “local color” or to reinforce a plot element, etc. – 1,001 uses! They’re also great for occasional bits of humor to keep a story from being too angst-heavy.

  • Love this post! This is something I know I need to work on–sometimes I get blinders on and focus only on the main characters, completely forgetting that they do not live alone on a deserted planet. Thanks for the helpful reminders!

  • quillet

    Wonderful post! This kind of thinking can really lift those walk-on parts from stereotypical ( = boring) to original ( = memorable and fun). I especially love the idea that we can learn a lot about our main characters by how they treat incidental people. Never thought of it that way before. Brilliant!

  • I have a lot of characters like this in my works. it makes for a richer tapestry and lets you kill off characters the MC might care for (if you need to). 😉 I have an incidental character in my epic fantasy romance that the MCs let take their horses in book 2 that will return them in book 3 when they meet up with him again because he couldn’t bear to sell them, even though they told him he could if they didn’t return. “I just couldn’t sell such fine mounts. And somehow, I knew you’d be back some day.” The character was only in one chapter as a guide through the mountains, but he was such a likeable character, even though he started out a little brash, that he’ll have a larger role in book 3. I love incidental characters that end up becoming more, even if it’s just as a death scene to spur the MC on.