Let’s Hear it for the NPCs

by Gail Z. Martin

At Lunacon, I was on a panel called “The Magical Middle Class” where the topic was secondary characters (or as gamers refer to them, Non-Player Characters—NPC) in fiction who possess magic but don’t have awesome jobs.  It got me thinking about how important background characters are, and how poor our fiction would be without them.

There are a lot of magical middle classers in the Harry Potter series.  Mr. Weasley is a perfect example.  He has magic powerful enough to be among the Order of the Phoenix, yet he has a job as a mid-level government bureaucrat.  Think about the series, and you find a number of people with jobs as shop keepers, bus drivers, and even Hagrid, the grounds keeper, who have very ordinary jobs despite magic that would make them extraordinary in our world.

In any book, but especially in a series, those background characters add life and texture when they’re done well.  They may never have a heroic role, but they make the world feel more real.  They are, as Mr. Rogers put it, “The people that you meet each day.”

Often, these characters serve as a source of information, an unlikely intelligence network, or an unofficial Greek chorus.  They’re the bartender, the cop or night guard, the janitor, the barrista, the waiter, the neighbor.  They’re the casual acquaintances, the people you see often enough to have a conversation with, and yet don’t know quite well enough to invite them to dinner.  Yet their conversations and interactions can reveal a lot about characterization, and can provide important, even essential clues to action.

So the next time you’re reading, pay attention to the NPCs.  They’re not the hero or the villain, but they are an essential support team, and play a role far more important than is often acknowledged.  Hooray for the magical middle class!

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