As I've mentioned before, I'm working on a military sci-fi novel.

Here's the trouble with the military: you don't spend all of your service, start to finish, with the same people. Not all the people you've done Basic Training with will proceed to the same Advanced Training as you. Not everyone who completes Advanced Training with you will be assigned to the same unit as you. In effect, after each transition, one is meeting new people and making new friends, keeping in touch with only a small sub-group of the friends from before. Like transitioning from middle school to high school, and from high school to university, only on a significantly shorter time frame. And that's before I so much as touch on drop-outs (and I do need those for tension - it could, theoretically happen to the MC).

The result of the above is I'm asking the reader to get to know a set of characters, only to lose sight of them several chapters later. The characters the MC was closest to in each stage do get further involvement in the story, but most drop out of sight. Similarly, in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, we don't hear about Bishop Myriel, his sister and his servant after their scene with Jean Valjean, nor about Félix Tholomyès and his friends after he abandons Fantine. Only, I can't think of more modern examples, which troubles me.

I would like to give my first-quarter-of-the-novel characters as much loving attention as Hugo gives Myriel and Tholomyès (and it's the recommendation I receive here), but I fear to lose the more impatient modern reader's attention. Much like the MC, I expect my reader would be eager to get out of boot camp and into real battle. How do I balance making the boot camp part interesting by way of having the MC develop various relationships with well-rounded characters, against the fact that most of those characters disappear from the story after the MC leaves boot camp?


8 Answers 8


Your issue is common to many novels and other long works. Your characters aren't just dropping into and out of your MC's life (like you often see in, say, TV shows where the MCs have friends for one episode then suddenly they have a big event and no one shows up). Your MC is changing settings. With set changes it's normal and expected to change supporting characters.

Making those secondary characters well-rounded without making the reader invest too much in them is indeed the hard part. I'm handling this by giving secondary characters full lives and backgrounds and individual personalities. But for myself. Very little of my backstory is getting into the book (a lot of the characters don't even get page time, let alone names, though I know them all). But what does make it through is personalized and not random.

My aim is to cut to the core of the character and bring that bit in. But really, they're there for the purpose of supporting the main character in service to the story. They have their own full lives and you will make that clear, but to the reader, they are there for a reason, not for themselves.

Your reader will invest emotional energy around the same level that your MC (or narrator) does. Something like bootcamp is an artificially close environment, so friendships get accelerated. But it's still only a few months. These are not lifelong friends, they're friends of the moment. Convey that and your reader will act accordingly.

Some of these friends might pop up later, or even become longer lasting regular characters. Or your MC (or others) might mention them. Doing this occasionally will help your reader feel that all that time spent getting to know people wasn't a total waste.

As long as you don't delve into a supporting character's backstory too much within the novel before ghosting them, your reader will go along with it. Changing casts is normal and expected.

  1. Realism is just a style: If it serves your novel better to have your MC serve with his buddies from bootcamp --or at least some of them --just make it happen. Lampshade it, or explain it away if you must, but don't be a prisoner of realism. In fact, even according to what you say, it's not unrealistic for there to be at least a core group that progresses on together. It might strain a tiny bit of credibility if all his best friends and worst enemies "just happen" to be in that core, but I don't think that's really much of a stretch for the reader. (And if there are one or two well-developed characters that only appear in one section of the book, I don't think that asks too too much of the reader, either.)

  2. Interweave the narratives: As suggested multiple times in answers to the earlier question, you don't have to run all the bootcamp scenes and then all the service scenes in chronological order. Weave them together and you solve both problems at once.

  3. Bring some of the characters back later: Even if they don't all go forth together, it's not out of the question that some of the characters from the first part might reappear later in minor or major roles. Most stories with a large cast do this to at least some extent.

There are some very successful books and movies that do move from one largely self-contained world to another --Full Metal Jacket seems like a particularly relevant example --so if you want to do this, you can. But in that case you really have two or more complete stories connected by a common character, and will need to make sure that each piece is capable of basically standing on its own --of being satisfying to the reader in of themselves.

  • 3
    Another relevant example is the book Catch 22, and it covers all of your points. It's definitely not married to realism while still maintaining the severity of war, and the narratives are not chronological. Those two serve the third point: some characters who are "gone" are referenced whenever they need to be, regardless of timing or their plausible circumstances. Granted, you may not be going for satire, but it's worth mentioning anyway.
    – zr00
    Jan 17, 2019 at 19:56
  • 1
    Yeah. Have one of the dudes get beat almost to death with soap inside socks, who then murders his drill instructor and commits suicide.
    – Mazura
    Jan 18, 2019 at 23:20

Just have him say thanks and goodbye and wish them luck.

I spent many years in my career as a consultant, everywhere I went I made friends, often for less than a year. These often began with lunches (everyone eats). I did my best when talking about my life and career to point out my stay was temporary, I would be moving on, and I liked it that way.

It is no different working in companies, at least in modern times. People come and they go; you stop seeing the people you've seen every day, even though you were friendly with them. Some that were particularly compatible still communicate with me; 90% of them have given up.

Friendship includes a healthy dose of shared experiences; when those end, the friendships tend to end. When I knew what people at IBM were talking about in reference to the internal politics and jokes about upper management, that was fun for me and my friends there. Once I disconnected, it is not fun for either of us; I am not up to speed on why the jokes are funny; and they would require too much explanation.

But that isn't a hostile end; I don't mind if an old lunch friend shows up and wants to visit and catch up.

A way out of that, to sustain a long distance friendship, is to focus on shared interests or experiences that we can still both experience despite being physically separated. Writing fiction is the first example of a shared interest I should mention (since we are on this site); pick the right person and you could have a remote friend, critique each other's work, talk about new fictions, etc. You might even collaborate!

Other interests might be politics. Finance and what is going on with the stock market. Sports. Movies and/or celebrity gossip. Developments in science and physics. Funny or viral YouTube videos! Music (and music celebrities).

Almost anything that has something new going on every day or every few days would count.

There is a psychological theory of friendship involving synergy. The basic idea is if you like music Type A, and I like music Type A, and we both search for good music of Type A, then by partnering up and sharing what we find, we double our search strength and increase our finds of good music of Type A. So we enjoy that partnership and call it friendship; as long as my other traits don't irritate you too much, and vice versa. Even better if you like my jokes, and I like yours.

That dynamic is maximized when there is a lot of stuff going on for the interest we share; otherwise you and I are finding the same things and little connection is created. Which is why I say something new every day or every few days, that is when the synergy can kick in and we become valuable to each other.

So your character lets friends go when all they shared was the ordeal of boot camp. He tries to keep them in his circle when they turned out to have shared interests and shared opinions, and a long distance friendship is viable (and you have some means of sustaining it). Otherwise, it's just "Man, you helped me get through this. Thanks for that, and good luck in your post."


Similarly, in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, we don't hear about Bishop Myriel, his sister and his servant after their scene with Jean Valjean, nor about Félix Tholomyès and his friends after he abandons Fantine. Only, I can't think of more modern examples, which troubles me.

It is indeed hard to think of a modern work that bothers to flesh out and spend time with characters who'll soon disappear. Personally, I find the modern trend annoying. Right or worng, I see it as Chekhov's gun stretched into characters and to the utmost. If the character will be important in the future, flesh it out, otherwise lose it or leave it cardboard.

Let me start by saying that in no way do I favour long, in-depth characterisation of transient characters just because. On the other hand, I do believe that even the most transient character should be fleshed out to a certain degree (even if it's just a particular habit that makes it into an individual in the background rather than an obvious stock character).

I'm asking the reader to get to know a set of characters, only to lose sight of them several chapters later. The characters the MC was closest to in each stage do get further involvement in the story, but most drop out of sight.

In this particular case, if you follow the trend, the reader will automatically know which characters will disappear from the plot and which will remain. If your aim is to tell the reader not to bother with them, go for it.

But, if your aim is to show how important they were for the MC during those months, then I suggest two alternatives:

a) Focus on the relationship

Don't worry so much about the characters per se, but about how the MC feels about them. Show how the MC feels sad when one fails an evaluation, or their happiness for the friend even when that friend is successful where the MC failed. Later, the MC could mention how they miss their old pals.

b) Focus on the characters

Give them moments where they can shine and be more than just a secondary character. Show their problems and how the MC is invested in helping them overcome such problems, much like they are willing to help the MC

In your particular case, I'd suggest option A. The reader doesn't really have to know the transient friends that deeply. The only thing that matters is that the MC enjoys spending time with them and that he finds them loyal and worthy friends.


Keep the characters relevant by having the MC spend his down time writing letters or otherwise trying to keep in touch with these characters.

Alternatively when the MC faces a tough challenge you can have him think back to some aspect of the other characters. Maybe he wants to get past a challenge because another character he felt was his rival failed on it and dropped out and he wants to prove he's better.


+1 to both suggestions.

In addition:

  1. Play with an alternating viewpoint. There can be rich potential in viewing the same scene or battle from two different perspectives.

  2. Have the MC develop a relationship with a staff secretary or pilot or supplies transport chief or other non-boot-camp stable and recurring character.

  3. Have a boot-camp friend defect and the MC meets them in battle. Ooooh.

  4. Have the main character be so gob-smacked by one of his early days friends, that thereafter he makes regular comments like, "Horatio always said (this)" and "Horatio wouldn't have done it that way,' etc. Your MCs new friend would understandably be annoyed or amused and ask about this amazing Horatio fellow.


I think you have a great opportunity here.

At the end of the day writing is about themes and genres. Does this loosing friends fit in with the story you are trying to tell? Do you want people to learn how hard it is to be in the military? In that case great! Drop all the characters your readers have been investing in. Make the reader miss them, make your character miss them. Describe your new friends from the perspective of old friends. "Today I finally found Mike's replacement. His name is Bob and I can talk to someone about cars again."

If this does not fit your themes then you may have a harder time. You could make a big joke out of all of it. You could have some good luck and be stationed with the 2 guys from his core friends group. If portraying feelings accurately based on millinery life is not what's important, then the reader also won't care that much if you fudge it.


As the author, you have full foresight of events to come in the plot. You know in advance which characters will be with your MC, where, why and when.

If you decide to write about them it is because they have a meaning. Generally, you don't describe every single person that ever happened to be within a twenty feet radius from the MC. This is in the same way in which you don't describe every single cobblestone on which they walk. Some cobblestones are interesting, some are necessary to understand the plot, some happen to be, the rest is a uniform background.

A suggestion. As your character gets to know these characters, show his feelings towards them. Show that he thinks about them. Show the emptiness after they are not there. Compare new characters to the old ones. Or that he just, suddenly and out of nowhere, recalled that irrelevant moment in which he was with them. In other words, show the reader why they were not just background cobblestones.

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