The Third Man Through The Door concept is taken from film makers. In the most literal interpretation the third man (or woman) came through the door after the hero or heroine and the sidekick.
Often they were there to bolster the ego of the first two characters and make them look good, sometimes even sacrificing themselves so the hero and sidekick could save the day.
Since reading about this concept many years ago I have always been surprised by just how many stories feature the third man – or person to be gender neutral. Once you are aware of their existence and the reason for their being in the story, you notice them more and more – films, tv and books all feature third people.
As a writer, I’m a pantser not a planner but third people evolve naturally in my stories and I bet they do in yours, too.
We are aware of stories from our youngest age and although we do not generally analyse the roles characters play in them or break them down into their component pieces, we are taking this information in, story by story, by osmosis. We learn that tales often have characters in certain roles and once we recognise those roles, we see them again and again.
The third person role is vital to most stories, even if they do not feature throughout the piece, their influence will still be felt. They sometimes do the heavy lifting necessary to make a back story work, they can ask the right questions at the right time, they can impart crucial character information about the hero/heroine and sidekick and, of course, they make your central characters look good.
They are never going to be the sexy one or the most intelligent one – those roles are strictly reserved for your hero/heroine. They are not going to be particularly funny – that role often belongs to the sidekick. They are usually decent and fair and can sometimes be the moral compass of a piece or at least be there to guide the hero/heroine back on to the right track should they waver – although that role sometimes falls to the wise elder. Their backstory can be hinted at but is rarely explored. They are not there to be the centre of attention. They are, as their name suggests, a way down the pecking order and destined to stand off to the side, helping the story along whenever required.
I now find myself trying to pick out the third man in every film or TV show I watch or book I read. I must warn you, however, third person spotting becomes addictive. Once you learn how to recognise them, you will see them everywhere and wonder how come you never noticed them before.
I love the third person. I find the character intriguing and delightful and as a writer they are endlessly helpful and useful. I urge you to love them too.
When creating your characters we lavish so much time and attention on our main players, rightly so, but try not to overlook the third person. Sketch in their backstory with a few strokes of your pen, give them a life, a past and a future (if they are not destined to die heroically saving the hero and the sidekick, of course ;)). They do such good work for us as writers, they deserve to be more than cardboard cut outs.
Sometimes I like my third person so much they stop being my third person and start to gravitate more to the centre of the piece but more on that next time.