There is no reason for me starting this blog post this way except that I’ve always wanted to do that and I am far too Yankee to try it in person. And the fact that I’m going to talk about secondary characters and Bang!, which is a Wild West card game.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, here’s a quick summary. Each player gets a role card that determines how they win the game: either sheriff, vice, outlaw, or renegade. Only the sheriff is allowed to reveal his role. To win, the sheriff must kill the outlaws, the vices must keep the sheriff alive, the outlaws must kill the sheriff, and the renegade must kill everyone…ending with a one-on-one showdown with the sheriff.
You’d think that, since everyone is trying to win, it would become immediately clear who is who. Not so. There’s an obvious way to play your character, and several more subtle ones.
That’s true with secondary characters. Most of the time, we expect them to fit certain stereotypes. Sometimes, though, other kinds of characters can be more interesting and actually help advance the plot instead of serving as human scenery.
I’ll go through the different ways I see people play out their roles in Bang! in relation to the sheriff, the protagonist of the game, and what that looks like in a fictional character.
This is, apparently, the Italian word for deputy, and it’s shorter and sounds cooler, so that’s what I use. The vice is the sidekick. He’s good pretty much all the time. However, there are different kinds of good.
Ridiculously Loyal Good: These people will do anything the sheriff tells them to do and will take a bullet for him.
In a character, this looks like…Classic Sidekick: Superheroes have these guys. They are usually good friends with the protagonists, and combine strengths and weaknesses with the protagonists to make a strong team.
Stupid Good: These people are vices who don’t know what vices are supposed to do. They shoot the wrong people and steal from the sheriff so many times that he thinks they’re outlaws and kills them.
In a character, this looks like…um, well, Stupid Sidekick: Honestly, these sidekicks are more of a problem than a help. They can make things interesting and add comic relief, but also add a bit of tension too.
Unknown Good: These people do not claim to be the vice, but wait until their actions prove it.
In a character, this looks like…Mysterious Sidekick: Usually, these people are forced into working with the protagonists for some reason, and we don’t know that they’re good until the end, at a critical moment. These can give us warm-fuzzy feelings because we want people to do the right thing (vs. the selfish thing).
Pretty much a henchman, one who’s always bad. It’s kill or be killed for them. Here are three types of bad you’ll see a lot.
Obvious Bad: These people are nice and direct – they shoot the sheriff, usually right away. Plain and simple.
In a character, this looks like…Classic Henchman. They always obey the villains orders, are fairly expendable, and exist to be defeated by the good guys.
Sneaky Bad: These people will lie about being the outlaw, at least at the beginning. They might even take out a fellow outlaw to prove their honesty. Then they open fire on the sheriff.
In a character, this looks like…Deceptive Henchman. For a while, they help the protagonist, but the reader pretty much knows the whole time that they’re going to turn out being bad. They’re usually kind of slimy like that.
Persuasive Bad: These people have the sheriff so convinced that he kills all of his vices before he realizes that he has been trusting an outlaw the whole time. Everyone in the game (except the last vice) is surprised too.
In a character, this looks like…Dramatic Twist Henchman. Maybe you thought these people were slightly shady, but in the big moment of betrayal, you are shocked and slightly horrified. Betrayal seems to do that to us for some reason. We want to trust people and believe that they are good, and hate it when we’re proved wrong.
I call this one the wildcard (which I define as a character who isn’t aligned with either the hero or the villain). He is a true neutral, trying to injure both sides equally and help the side that seems to be behind (at least, until everyone but the sheriff is dead). Here are the different ways neutral can lean.
Mercenary Neutral: These people let you know fairly soon that they are renegades, and will help whatever side decides not to shoot them. And it can change every round.
In a character, this looks like…Classic Wildcard. These characters are the ones that can be easily bought. They are usually greedy, highly independent, and without deep moral convictions. No one really likes them, and they don’t care.
Sinister Neutral: These people are psychologically on the side of the outlaws, but mostly, they just want to shoot people, regardless of who they are. They go out with guns blazing.
In a character, this looks like…Villain Wildcard. We might have a little more sympathy for these wildcards than the henchmen (they might not have a choice), but for whatever reason, they side with the villain in the end…or at least refuse to help the hero.
Benevolent Neutral: These people are usually fairly cautious, and take the safe route of claiming to be vices for as long as they can. They help the sheriff shoot the outlaws while secretly hoping those outlaws will last long enough to return fire.
In a character, this looks like…Hero Wildcard. While they do some pretty bad things throughout the course of the story, this wildcard can also be very useful. The difference between the Hero Wildcard and the Unknown Good is that wildcards don’t necessarily have to stay good (no dramatic shift of loyalty to the hero at the end). They can do something to help the protagonist one second, then try to kill him the next.
Just to clarify – there’s nothing wrong with the “Classic” versions of these characters, just like there’s nothing wrong with playing the game those ways. They’re classics for a reason. But if you’re thinking about a giving your protagonist a sidekick, your antagonist a henchmen, or your fictional world in general a wildcard, don’t feel limited to one kind of character.