Fleshing out your secondary characters with Greg House

1024 576 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

I’m going way off-piste today with this post: it’s not about fantasy, horror, sci-fi or mystery (well, House is a medical mystery show, but I’m not sure that counts) and there isn’t a middle grade or YA reader in sight. But it tackles something I know a lot of my author clients struggle with so please bear with me!

So, I’m a huge fan of the American TV series HouseI think it’s one of the greatest US drama shows of all time – and I watched an episode this week that got me thinking about secondary characters in fiction and how important it is to know their backstory, even if we don’t show it all on the page.

If you don’t watch it, House is a medical drama following Dr Gregory House, a brilliant but antisocial diagnostician who flouts the hospital rules and manipulates everyone around him. At the centre of every episode is a medical mystery that House must solve against the clock, all while coping with chronic leg pain and an addiction to Vicodin. It doesn’t sound like it, but he’s a sympathetic, irresistible protagonist and the viewer is (almost) always rooting for him. Essentially, it’s a medical reboot of Sherlock Holmes.

House has a love/hate relationship with his boss, Dr Lisa Cuddy, the hospital’s Dean of Medicine. Over the show’s eight seasons we watch them flirt, fight, date, break up and make each other miserable.

An alternative point of view

In the episode ‘5 to 9’, the show’s format switches from House’s POV to Lisa Cuddy’s and for the first time ever we follow the day’s events from her perspective. It’s a clever device that gives viewers insight into Dr Cuddy’s high powered, stressful hospital career and life as a new single mother. She has a million things to do and gets pulled in a hundred directions as she tries to negotiate a huge, career-defining deal with an insurance company and contend with a pharmacy technician stealing drugs.

House makes a few appearances in the episode, distracting Cuddy by seeking permission for crazy medical procedures (as usual), and the viewer finally sees him through Cuddy’s eyes: he’s a massive drain on her time and energy. Because we’re usually in House’s POV, we typically see Cuddy as existing purely for House’s benefit. She’s there to permit or veto his medical requests and acts as a frustrating – even dangerous – obstacle when House needs to save a life. But now we’re peering over Cuddy’s shoulder, we realise how much pressure she is under and what a liability House is for the hospital. Instead of shouting ‘Cuddy, just let the man do his job!’ at the screen every episode, we’re now willing House to give her a break and get out of her way.

We’re all the protagonist of own own story

This perspective shift struck me because it highlights how important is it to give your secondary characters a complete inner life, even if you don’t show it all. Your protagonist’s best friend can’t just exist to be your protagonist’s best friend – they need a background and interests and personal conflicts that motivate their actions in the story. Cuddy never felt one-dimensional; she’s always been portrayed as a strong, sensitive character with clear goals and motives. But this episode was a reminder that every character is the hero of their own story. They don’t exist in a vacuum, purely to act as a sidekick or foil to your protagonist. That’s not believable and it’s definitely not interesting to read.

Now, I’m not talking about minor characters like the bus driver who says hello to your protagonist in the mornings, or the mysterious lady who sells the main character a dragon egg at the village market and never returns. Minor characters like these exist in your manuscript simply to move the plot along and you don’t need to dream up a school report or family tree for them (although it’s still worth remembering they are the heroes of their own stories, too). But important secondary characters, like best friends, recurring teachers, parents and bullies, should be fleshed out and fully formed.

Dig deeper into your supporting cast

You don’t have to go into tons of detail about your secondary characters, or give us a chapter from their POV, but you should know them just as well as you know your protagonist, and then give the reader the information they need to believe in the character and their relationship with your MC.

Who’s your favourite secondary character in fiction, and how did the author bring them to life for you? Could your story’s cast do with some fleshing out? Do you love House as much as I do? Tell me in the comments!

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes