Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Role Of Secondary Characters

We have talked here before about your secondary characters in your novels. In the past, we discussed how we really don't want them to steal the show since it is your protagonist who the spotlight should be on. Today, however, I want to take this in a slightly different angle and really discuss what role that character should have in your book.

When we talk about your secondary characters, I like to think of these as your visible support staff. In other words, we see them, they are always visible in some form or another and will likely be back every now and then in the book. They are your reoccurring characters. The question now is, "What the heck do they do?"

As support staff, they are there to help the protagonist(s) in the book. That help is in the form of adding depth and dimension to the main character. They are there to round out the protagonist and to provide a new insight into the character's GMC (Goals, Motivations and Conflicts). The story is not about them. We don't need to really know much about their back story, but we need to know they are there. Any information about that character and his or her individual plot line would only come out on a "need to know basis". When it does it is there to provide some sort of balance to something that is going on in the protagonist's own plot line.

Let's look at Harry Potter. Now while some may argue that later on in the story, Ron and Hermione start to take on a much larger role, if we look at them in the early stages of the book, they would be considered the secondary characters. The story is simply about Harry and how he is dealing with this bizarre lifestyle he is now thrown in. We know a fair deal about Harry, but when it comes to understanding some inner workings of him as a character, that is where we need to have Ron and Hermione's help.

Harry is supposed to be a leader in the book. Now all the time he has been living in the Muggle world, we really don't get a chance to see this. But, when we bring in someone like Ron who needs guidance and confidence, Harry can now shine in that area of leadership. Despite everything thing Harry might think about himself as not being a leader, the experiences he has when Ron is in the picture give not only the reader a chance to see that leadership, but also Harry.

When we want to bring him down a notch and show that he is a bit too reactionary and doesn't think things out, we bring in Hermione. She is the rational thinker. She is the critical thinker. She isn't the person who we just react to things. When Harry is by himself, we think he is just being, for lack of another word, brave. We don't contemplate how many of his decisions are without thought. Add Hermione and we see that flaw in his character.

What do we see many writers using the secondary characters for? They are dialogue devices. They are chances to hype up the second and the third book in the series. This is not what the secondary characters are used for.

The biggest is someone to talk to. The problem with adding these characters in just for a sounding board is that we do have to spend so much time adding that depth to the secondary characters bios. If all you need is someone to talk to, you can bring in the characters that Scott Myers describes as Tertiary. These are simply the characters that are nothing more that set pieces. In his screenplays, he would describe them as "Cop #3". This could be the secretary, the girl  at the coffee shop. It doesn't matter. These characters are not so much giving us a new insight into the character. They are simply a plot device to get the character to talk about it. In other words, we aren't really learning anything new about the character from an outside example. We just gave the character a chance to talk.

Secondary characters are fantastic to use in books, but you need to know why they are there and what their role really is in the story. Don't abuse these people. Don't let them take over. Use them for what they are there for - the supporting cast for your headline star!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Scott! Very insightful and just the reminder I needed for my writing this weekend. Thanks for always supporting your writers and giving them the pep talks they need! You're a great agent!