Love Your Cannon Fodder

Marie Bilodeau

A guest post by Marie Bilodeau.

We live in a world of great literary traditions, including one of my time-tested favourites: cannon fodder. Ah, cannon fodder. Those secondary characters with a sole purpose, no matter whether they’re given one scene or ten, which is to show how dangerous the situation is and to up the tension.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Homer’s Iliad lately, in preparation for an oral storytelling show in June, and it struck me how Homer understood the importance of making that cannon fodder matter. And, in The Iliad, there is a lot of cannon fodder. But no one is killed without giving us an idea of who they are. Of who they leave behind, of which parent will never greet them back home again. This shows us the unrelenting and absurd horror of war, and how no one really wins. It’s effective because he makes us care about every body thudding on that battlefield in one or multiple pieces (seriously gory stuff).

So, whether you’re writing a mystery, an adventure story or even a romance, keep in mind a few tricks to make readers care about those secondary characters before they kick the graveyard dust.

  • We love those who are loved. Let us see those characters through the eyes of a character we love. In Destiny’s War, the third book in my latest series, I kill off a new character early on in the story. But he was loved by a character who had been in all three books and readers felt the loss through her (I know – I got several angry e-mails about it. Happy Angry Mail, I call it. Or HAM, because it makes me hungry and happy all at once.)
  • Never underestimate sympathy. There are many ways to relate to a character and pity is a strong emotion that can’t be underestimated. Don’t lay it on so thick that we can’t breathe through the melodrama, but imagine this:

    • Scenario 1: Joe breaks up with his beloved Kate and he’s trying really hard to get his life back together. Just as he works up the courage to ask Natasha out (she said yes!), he gets killed.
    • Scenario 2: Joe is super happy. Everything is great and he has a new kitten! He dies.
    • Scenario 3: Kate left Joe to avoid his downward spiral from his drug addiction. He checks into rehab and writes to her every day, even if she doesn’t write back. He promises he’ll do right by her, even if that means leaving her alone forever. If she doesn’t come to pick him up when he’s leaving rehab, he’ll never bother her again, even though he’ll always love her. The day before being released, still having heard no word, he’s killed.

Which scenario elicits the most sympathy from you and why? Notice how the second example is really going from a good situation to dead. The first and third showcase trying to get back out of a dark pit, which we can all relate to and it can even make us root for that character. Rooting is good – it’s shattering when people don’t get the chance to succeed at their goals after working so hard. And the third scenario is the longest, most detailed account, with all its ups and downs. But is it too high and too low for cannon fodder? Be aware of how each one affects you – they all show tools you can use in your own writing.

  • Make their quirkiness our own. Or vice versa. Agent Coulson on The Avengers was sympathetic in part because he was the fan boy, and not another blank-faced agent. He got the job done and he also had his stack of collectible cards. If Hilary Hill had died, we wouldn’t have cared as much. She was great, of course, but not quirky, and quirky is a very human trait.
  • Make us feel their loss. By giving them something we want sooooo bad, we’ll feel that loss. This goes back to the sympathy point. Ted just received his first publishing contract. It’s six figures (wow!), a great publisher, and is getting him out of a tight financial situation. Before he gets to hold that book in print, he gets hit by a drunk driver. How many of you are seeking publication? Did that resonate? Pick a backstory that will work with the people who will be reading your novel. It doesn’t have to be usual or predictable, but it has to resonate in some way with your main story, characters and readership. Ground the cannon fodder deeply in the rest of your story for maximum impact.
  • We root for the downtrodden. We like seeing the little guy win. We root for the underdog. Pick one of a gazillion Hollywood movie about sports for an example of that.

Those are just a few ideas to make those characters stand out, so that they’ll matter to your readers by the time they’re murdered in the Great Cause of Story. Even villains deserve some care with this – put shades of gray in your story to make their deaths really pop. And because you love your cannon fodder, you want their deaths to mean something to the reader.

Guest Writer Bio:
Marie Bilodeau recently launched the third book in her award-winning space opera Destiny series (Destiny’s Blood, Destiny’s Fall and Destiny’s War). She is also the author of the Heirs of a Broken Land, a fantasy trilogy described as “fresh and exciting” by Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo award-winning author of WAKE. Her short stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies and have also been nominated twice for the Aurora Awards. Marie is also a professional storyteller, telling adaptations of fairy tales and myths, as well as original stories of her own creation. She’s a passionate advocate for paper airplane contests, peach desserts and caffeine consumption.

2 responses on “Love Your Cannon Fodder

  1. clancy

    Excellent points and I like the examples and explanation. I’ll be holding onto this info for future reminders – so I don’t forget!

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