Sunday, January 14, 2018

Can You Spot the Tertiary Character in This Novel?

I gave the man an aquarium for Christmas and Jackson finally discovered it has living creatures in it. He's quite bemused by the concept.

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is tertiary characters who demand the spotlight.

It's a funny thing about my brain that the word "tertiary" takes me right back to organic chemistry, and not to writing things at all. As far as chemistry is concerned, tertiary structure is when a chain of proteins (for example) is folded up, with disulfide bonds maybe. Primary structure is the basic molecule, secondary structure is when they get chained up. After the folding of tertiary, you might get bundles clumped together to make quatenary structure.

What about the quatenary characters, I ask you???

Really... does anyone think about tertiary characters? I certainly don't as a reader. I don't even really think in terms of secondary characters. Do you, as a reader?

I suppose secondary characters come into play because most stories focus action on one or two protagonists. It's been an interesting game for those of us watching A Game of Thrones who haven't made it through all the books in A Song of Ice and Fire, to see the story wrapping up to show that the sprawling epic with tons of characters - and protagonists - is about the Stark family in the end. And that Jon Snow may be the protagonist after all. Hard for me to tell how much of that is the show runners refining the story that way, however.

But in most books that aren't multi-tentacled monster fantasy epics, there is one protagonist, maybe two. They are the single molecules upon which everything is built. The secondary characters are part of the world they live in, because no person is an island, so those connections create chains of people.

As we all know, secondary characters in one book often become the protagonists in sequels, and all of you readers are adept at picking out who those people might be. But can you spot the tertiary characters?

If I extend the chemistry analogy, those are secondary characters who get wrapped in and cemented with extra bonds. I think, however, that the suggester of this topic wasn't thinking in those terms. Instead, tertiary must mean to them another rung lower than secondary. But if you have the protagonists, everyone connected to them, then the next rung down is.... bit players? Characters without lines? Pets and livestock?

I frankly don't know, so I'll be interested in what the rest of the gang has to say this week. For my part, I'm a believer in the advice that all characters live full lives that begin long before they walk onto the page and continue after they walk off. Some of the best observations on this come from theater.
In this perspective all "tertiary" characters demand the spotlight, because they are all the protagonist of their own tales. Whether the author chooses to spin the POV to show that tale is another question.

But you all tell me, is there a character you've read who you'd regard as tertiary who then became a protagonist?


  1. Not to disregard the merits of the extremely excellent and well reasoned blog post, but I loved Jackson with the aquarium! :)

    1. Easily the best part of the post! :-) It's pretty entertaining to watch him trying to reason it out.

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  2. I am not sure if I specifically remember a tertiary character becoming a protagonist, but it is not uncommon for me to be fascinated by a "bit player" and want their story.

  3. In my head, once a character demands a story, then I no longer quantify them as tertiary...but...examples:
    If A and B are the MCs and they having loving families and decent bosses, then probably the bosses are the tertiary characters. As in I care about them, but the story can stand without a lot of info about them, and the story won't collapse if I take them out but is enhanced by their presence.
    Bit players are ...the pet turtles, or the pet orchids, or stuff that adds spice, but not something you'd drop more than two lines about in the whole story.
    Then you have the irritating "hook characters" who show up, save the day, proclaim a riddle, does REALLY COOL stuff, and then the author doesn't write their story for another fifteen books and then that book is probably a complete let down.

    1. I think that makes a lot of sense. I buy a tertiary character as being named possibly, but having no page time - like the boss you mention. They serve as worldbuilding elements and possibly obstacles or conflicts, but no more. And lol on the 15 books later thing. Been there, too.