Humans are (for the most part) social creatures. We live, work, and interact among other people every day. To be believable, primary characters in our novels should live in worlds with other people, as well. Hence our need to build worlds for them that include secondary characters.
But filling out our stories with secondary characters isn’t as simple as randomly dropping in the wacky best friend or meddling mother or curmudgeonly boss. Secondary characters aren’t window dressing to make the primary characters’ lives look well-rounded.
Like every other aspect of a book, they should serve the story. We should be able to answer the question, why is this character here? In addition to looking pretty, or ugly, or menacing, each secondary character should do something: enhance the plot, underscore the theme, complicate the protagonist’s life, all of the above – something that wouldn’t happen if that character were taken out of the story. So what happens if you’ve created a convenient friend or foe or foil for your protagonist, but other than convenience, that character accomplishes nothing in your story?
I faced this with a do-nothing secondary character in my WIP. Sarah is one of my protagonists, and her Southern-belle-with-tiger-claws mother Linney is her antagonist, the one blocking her goals at every turn. And then there was Sarah’s father, a respected and successful attorney who stood by and watched his wife torment their grown daughter. I couldn’t figure out what his problem was. And as a hotshot attorney, his penchant for keeping his mouth shut just didn’t seem to suit his profession. Only after I realized that this character should not appear on the page, in fact, should have died prematurely years before the story even begins, did his silence finally make sense. And more than that, his very absence helps explain the dynamic between this adult daughter and her overbearing mother.
As important as it is for secondary characters to do something, they should also be something. By that I mean they should be people in their own right, with lives and goals and problems of their own. If a secondary character is interesting, readers will relish the scenes when s/he appears as opposed to skipping past those pages. Think about how complex and therefore intriguing Snape was in the Harry Potter series. He had secrets and goals and motives of his own, some of which we didn’t learn until the end of the series. But whether he was foe or friend, villain or hero in any particular scene or book, he was always interesting. I would bet that very few readers of the series skipped past scenes with Snape in them. He kept us riveted.
So what do you do if you’re reading through your first (or fifth or tenth) draft and you run into a secondary character doing a passable imitation of a potted plant? First, you need to determine whether the character even belongs in the book. Is there a reason, other than convenience or the writer’s affection, for him or her to be there? If the answer is yes, that they can be a fully functioning and contributing character if you just give them some love, then start by giving them a goal, something to strive for throughout the story. Take a deeper dive, using a character questionnaire to learn more about who they are, what they want, and why they are taking up valuable page space in your book. Apply the tools you use for your main characters such as the Conflict Box.
Using this last technique, I learned that Jack, one of my minor characters, has a lot going on behind his pretty blue eyes. Originally, he showed up sporadically to pass on Important Information to the protagonist. Now, after putting him through his own conflict box exercise, he is a potential romantic interest for the main protagonist, and is throwing monkey wrenches into her goal of accomplishing her Plan, which includes finding the ‘right guy’ who would be, of course, nothing like Jack.
Secondary characters should do more than populate our main characters’ worlds. They should bring something to the party that makes our guests, the readers, want to stay for a while. And if they’re written really well, secondary characters might be among the things readers remember most about a fictional world long after they’ve finished the book.
What secondary characters have you loved (or loved to hate)? What made them so memorable to you?