First, the bad news — I’m not going to have Altered Seasons: Monsoonrise out until early next year. Which means I’m going to miss out on the holiday shopping season. (At least for this book. I have others.)
Now for something I’ve been thinking about since a talk an author gave at a conference I went to recently. (If you’re curious, the author is Viet Dinh. His book After Disasters is on my to-read list.)
I’ve been thinking about Satellite Characters. Satellite Characters are supporting characters who act like supporting characters, and even seem to think of themselves as supporting characters. They are characters whose life seems to revolve around the main character, who seem to be more preoccupied with his or her thoughts and feelings than with their own. Sometimes they are servants or employees of the main character, but often they aren’t.
This can be done well or badly. Done well, they are characters who could be the main character of their own story but act this way for reasons of their own. Done badly, they make the story feel false and artificial.
Case in point — a scene in Left Behind. The protagonist, Rayford Steele, has just lost his wife and son in a mass disappearance. The key word there is mass. All the children in the entire world have vanished in the Rapture, along with a number of adults, not to mention those who died in car and plane crashes because God just had to get everybody at the exact same moment and couldn’t hold off on taking a few people until they’d landed or stopped. Every parent is bereaved, and anyone on Earth who isn’t at least shocked and stunned is someone who hasn’t been paying attention. And yet, when Ray asks a co-worker "You know about my family?" the response is "Everybody here knows, sir." Fred Clark nails this one.
"Everybody knows," and everybody cares, about Rayford. They know that he lost his wife — the same wife he couldn't stand to be around, the one he blew off to hit on young flight attendants — and they regard his loss as somehow more special, more important than their own. It's not just that these people are undeveloped extras in the background of somebody else's story — it's that they know they're merely extras in the background, and they enthusiastically embrace this status.
Well, yes. The other characters are, in effect, Satellite Characters, not (I suspect) because LaHaye and Jenkins thought it should be so but because they forgot that every character is the protagonist of his or her own story. Writers don’t normally make that mistake, but — to be blunt — LaHaye and Jenkins aren’t writers trying to evangelize, they’re evangelists trying to write.
Of course, where you really run into trouble is when your main character is white and your satellite character isn’t, or your main character is male and your secondary character is female, or your main character is straight and your secondary character is gay. The Magical Negro, the Black Best Friend, the Asian Sidekick, the Gay Best Friend, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl* — despite their differences, they all have this in common. They are individuals of such merit and wisdom that it would seem their creator could not possibly be prejudiced, but you have to ask why they don’t have anything better to do than aid and/or mentor the far more flawed main character.
I try to be careful how I use Satellite Characters in my own writing. In a crucial scene in Locksmith’s Closet, Lucy Thames, a character who has been emotionally supportive of Lock and whom we’ve never seen except when she was exerting time and effort on his behalf, has to absent herself at a critical moment because (as a result of in-story events) somebody else needs her help more than he does. This not only leaves Lock desperate enough to make the unwise decisions that allow the plot to go forward, but it gets across that Lucy is more than just his personal talking teddy bear — or rather, she plays that role for a lot of kids and she can’t show favoritism.
In Altered Seasons: Monsoonrise, we meet Jerome Ross. He describes himself as “the right hand of Carrie Camberg and the pimp hand of God.” The first part of that is the important part. He has worked for others, but we never see him doing it. He’s a Satellite, but one that broadcasts a lot of entertainment. I’ll get into his psychology and his reasons for being the way he is in Altered Seasons: Age of Consequences. And there is a moment, near the end of Monsoonrise, when Isabel considers a course of action which may lead to her becoming a Satellite Character — in fact, she uses the metaphor of being pulled into orbit around someone else. She prizes her independence, but her options at this point are limited.
In other words, tropes are tools. It’s okay to launch a few Satellites, as long as you know you’re doing it, and why.
* If I wasn’t working on too many other things, I’d write a story in which five characters fitting these tropes team up to save the world from something or other. They succeed, but none of them ever actually takes full charge of the group and each of them occasionally stops for a moment to reflect that they feel like their team is missing somebody, but nobody can figure out who. (Someone else has probably already done this.)