“And that’s when it dawned on me: This kid had only ever experienced disabled people as objects of inspiration. We are not, to this kid — and it’s not his fault, I mean, that’s true for many of us. For lots of us, disabled people are not our teachers or our doctors or our manicurists. We’re not real people. We are there to inspire. And in fact, I am sitting on this stage looking like I do in this wheelchair, and you are probably kind of expecting me to inspire you. Right?” –Stella Young
As usual, the late comedian and activist Stella Young hit the nail on the head with this description. While the subject of her talk is people with disabilities, who get exploited for a distinct and patronizing form of ‘inspiration porn’‘inspiration porn’, other groups (women, people of color, poor people, etc) also get leveraged as props to help the (white, cishet, ablebodied, middle-class) character on their journey of heroism or self-discovery. In many cases, insult is added to injury when the character is unnecessarily killed off for the purpose of giving the protagonist angst or motivation.
The other issue is that besides having the average life expectancy of a mayfly riding a motorcycle without a helmet, these characters are not fully developed characters. They are idealized helpers, or idealized victims, or idealized sources of wisdom. Their purpose is to either serve as a foil for the main character, and prompt character growth, or to act as a dispenser of platitudes, clues, and martial arts know-how to help the protagonist on their quest.
Power differentials and social context aside, this is bad writing because it is boring and unrealistic. One mark of realistic characters is that they’re not just sockpuppets waiting on the almighty protagonist— they have their own needs, agendas, perspectives, and relationship styles. Every supporting character should have their own life, even if we don’t see much of it on the page, since this will inform their actions and their relationship with the protagonist. Major secondary characters should get a similar amount of development to your lead.
This brings us to the more central question: why not cut out the (cis/white/able-bodied/etc) middleman and have the secondary character be your protagonist? Part of what Ms. Young’s comments address isn’t just that marginalized people (specifically people with visible disability) are used as props; its that society constructs a narrative where the only roles are props for the ‘real’ people who go on adventures and have careers and fall in love.
As a final corollary, please let the marginalized secondary characters live. Before you jump in with all kinds of depressing statistics, remember that fiction is not a passive mirror of the current culturally dominant narrative, but a tool though which human societies shape and share our values and ideas. Giving your secondary characters agency means that they don’t have to be discarded when the protagonist is done using them as a source of angst or inspiration. They can either remain connected to the protagonist, or fall our of the main character’s orbit and get on with their own lives.