A complaint about a lot of sf/f that I've read lately—the endings. The payoff for all my reading, all my investment, is sometimes a little spartan. This applies to the short form as well as the long. In fact, many sf/f reviews often lament the let-down at the end, judging by these snippets from the Internet Review of Science Fiction:
. . .the ending caves in under the weight of sentimentality. . .
. . .but at the end, his conclusion comes as no great surprise.
. . .the end gives the premise a little more life, but for a theme that has been extensively worked, it still came off a bit slight. . .
. . .To be honest, though, the ending is a trifle enigmatic.
. . .The ending could be a little more satisfying.
Recently, I've determined that J.K. Rowling has a particular skill for the ending. Witness the recent movie—Cedric dies (that's bad), Voldemort comes back (even worse), Mad-Eye is an enemy (much worse), and then the Ministry of Magic refuses to believe it all (much, much, worse).
I realize that Rowling is, to many speculative fiction fanciers, a harlot worthy of nothing but scorn, but I beg your indulgence: the last book I read whose ending really sizzled and kept me up until 3:00am was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It has Rowling's standard bad-to-worse buildup, but it also has something else, something very subtle but very powerful. In the climax of the book we find Harry, Ron, and Hermione in grave danger—pretty typical—but what isn't standard is that a number of their schoolmates and friends—secondary characters—are also in danger with them. Now, I'm a grown-up and I know that the main characters, Harry, Ron, Hermione, will get out of this bruised but alive. Neville Longbottom? Could drop at any moment. Ditto Nigel, Seamus, Padma, and Ginny Weasley. And that was what held me in that world and made it so gripping.
Secondary characters, are they the go-to guys for excitement?
. . .Before we go any further, I should point out that secondary character endangerment is often a technique used in the climax of a book or a movie. Those of you who haven't read or watched Harry Potter, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Lord of the Rings, be warned there are spoilers lurking Minoc-like ahead.
Wedge Antilles, Biggs, Lando Calrissian, Porkins, Boromir, Captain Poole, Obi-Wan. Half of these people died, and the other half could have just as easily. If you doubt the power of the secondary character, let me point out that Wedge is a favorite of Star Wars fans, and Porkins, as we all know, was not only killed when they came at him from behind, but he also apparently died for our sins.
Oh sure, you can have any old redshirt get his face yanked off by a salt-sucking alien, just to show how dangerous the salt-sucking alien is, but if you can get the audience to care about that redshirt, then you've got excitement. Then you have art, baby.
Focusing on Star Wars for a second, by the time The Return of the Jedi had come out, I was old enough to know, on some level, that Luke/Leia/Han/Chewie were gonna make it. But Wedge. . .well, what are the odds he'll make it twice? And don't get me started on Lando Calrissian. Recently introduced, and a black man to boot, and what's with that alien co-pilot? Those two are almost assuredly going to bite it. Maybe Wedge would make it, maybe Lando would, but both? I was glued to the screen. Glued.
Secondary character endangerment has an added thematic element in that it is a blade that cuts two ways: via the effect on both the audience and the main characters. Even before the release of the re-edited Star Wars Episode IV, observant nerds surely noticed that Biggs and Wedge are Luke's friends from back in the day. However, as much like Beggar's Canyon the equatorial seam of the Death Star may be, joyrides in T-15s didn't end with your best friend being blasted to death by Imperial Tie Fighters. Not so much like bustin' Womprats now, is it?
Biggs' death has a sobering effect on Luke, very different from the rage induced by the murder of Obi Wan. Early on in the movie we learn that Luke admires his friends Biggs and Wedge for their role in the rebellion. They have what Luke wants—the adventure and the excitement of fighting against the empire—and through Biggs' death Luke realizes the cost, and the fact that he, too, may very well die in this fool's errand.
J.K. Rowling does one better in the recently released movie of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire via Cedric Diggory's death. Observant readers will note that Cedric has been there from very early on in the books and, assuming they can keep all the secondary characters straight, readers probably have formed an attachment to young Cedric. Harry's reaction to death is much different than Luke's, though. Harry, after besting the Dark Lord (again), wigs out once he's back at Hogwarts, wigs out specifically because of Cedric's death. Even if you don't feel the loss of the character Cedric, you feel Harry's injury at it.
And given Harry's reaction to Cedric's tragic, but incidental, death, this sets up the action in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when it becomes Harry's idea to bring along a bunch of his classmates—classmates that the reader has, after five books, come to know and care about, often in spite of themselves. So you get a double-whammy of the exciting secondary character endangerment! Goosebumps!
And goosebumps segue nicely into the next section of this essay: some of the tricks that authors use to augment the tool of secondary character endangerment. Sometimes there is no real distinction between primary and secondary characters. 2001: A Space Odyssey provides a good speculative fiction model to follow. Captains Frank Poole and David Bowman are introduced late in the movie, they dress alike, they have the same haircuts, they spend a lot of time hanging around the S.S. Discovery. Doing stuff. Killing time and waiting for the killing time. It isn't really until Captain Poole meets his demise in the pitiless void that Captain Bowman becomes the "main" character. And, for bonus points, it isn't until HAL is being disconnected that the supercomputer grows as a character, just in time for you to watch it die.
There is also the trick of making nobody a secondary character—or perhaps a better way of saying that is to say that you invest each character with equal emotional weight. War movies and horror movies are perhaps better examples of this than sf/f. Saving Private Ryan and Big Red One are about groups of men in terribly dangerous situations. None of them are that primary (each movie has a narrator character, of course, but that only adds to the "there but for the grace of god" feel).
Horror/suspense manages this, too. Nobody in Night of the Living Dead is really the "main" character, just one of a bunch of people thrown into a zombie crisis. Or you could look to the sharky cunning of Deep Blue Sea for the same thing.
Some could argue that Tolkien pulled a similar trick. Frodo Baggins is the only "main" character in The Lord of the Rings. Everyone else is, or at least starts off, as a secondary character. And Tolkien, WWI veteran that he was, didn't hold back from the killin'. Boromir, sure, but Gandalf as well, and the curtain falls on Theoden, Denethor, Grima, Gollum/Smeagol, and Saruman. In fact, I've heard some argue that he even kills Frodo, twice—once with the Morgul dagger, once with Shelob's venom. And, amidst all the action, some characters push their way up from the secondary ghetto—Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn. Legolas and Gimli stay pretty firmly secondary, as do Eomer and Eowyn, whose contributions are perhaps the most exciting of the story.
Of course, Eomer and Eowyn are members of the royal family of Rohan, and the flip-side of such privilege is another trait of secondary characters that authors can exploit: the fact is, most of us are not "main character" material. And since secondary characters are, by economy or on purpose, often a bit of blank slate, we can easily project ourselves onto them. This everyman quality—that Captain Bowman isn't that different from Captain Poole, and in a weird '60s way, from you and me—is why we have such sympathy for him as he struggles against HAL. Which brings us full circle to Porkins.
Let us have a moment of silence.
Porkins is, of course, the everyman of the Star Wars world. I feel that I should point out that while Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher were professional actors, they were not particularly pretty actors—a rare thing in any movie. But Porkins was not only not particularly handsome, he was fat. Fat, d'ya hear, geeks? Obese! Large! Grav. EEE. Tus. And whether you think fat is the new blackface or not, the fact is that he looked like every vice-principal, camp counselor, and half the cops/firemen/public employees/etc. you ever met. There was an instant connection there (intentional or not) between the character and the audience.
And it's that kind of unintentional attraction that leads me to my last observation. It's often the secondary characters that are the ones who catch your eye in repeated viewings or readings. You were watching the main characters the first time through and you already know what happens to them, so your eye and mind drift to the others. This is why I find myself counting the bodyguard of King Theoden and noting that the big tall guy goes missing before the battle of Helm's Deep. This is why I find myself extremely sympathetic to Luke's uncle Owen—what were his last words? Did he get to say anything? Did he keep quiet about Luke, knowing it would cost him and his wife their lives and probably not help Luke much in the end? And, of course, Arthur Weasley is rapidly becoming my favorite character in Rowling's books (he was, as the kids today say, the shit back in the day).
It seems that the use of secondary character endangerment as a tool in writing, has been growing. Generally, for written works, it takes longer works with a larger cast of characters and enough pages to bring them to life to really pull it off. J.K. Rowling does this very well, as does Robert Jordan in his Wheel of Time series. I confess that I don't read a lot of short stories, but I expect the same tricks can be used in that form as well by skillful writers. In fact, Robert Howard's story "Beyond the Black River" is a favorite of all Conan fans—and it is telling that Conan is not the main character. Sure, the Cimmerian is going to make it, but grisly death is a likely outcome for everyone around him.
So, next time, keep your eyes on that guy in the back.