We all need a supporting cast in our novels. Secondary characters have to be in there, unless your book is about a guy stuck on a deserted island the entire time. But even in that instance, an animal or even a volleyball (sorry, had to put that in there from Castaway) can play the role of a secondary character. There are plenty of great movies where even the hero is an animal (The Incredible Journey is one that comes to mind) or something not human. but whether your secondary characters are human, feline, canine, or bovine, they need to be fully human in their characteristics (well, maybe cats can getting away with just saying no).
They Stick in Your Mind
Suffice it to say, I don’t read a whole lot of manuscripts that have many terrific secondary characters. and I struggle with creating good ones in my novels. The tendency is to throw someone in there as a vehicle to bring out the plot or reveal aspects of the protagonist’s personality, but when we do that, the reader can sense it. I love a great book in which a secondary character almost steals the show. Right away I think of Fermin, the oddball street guy in Zafon’s best seller The Shadow of the Wind. His performance throughout the book riveted me without taking away from the story in any way. Another character that has stuck with me for decades is Le Cagot, a Basque nationalist and lunatic in Trevanian’s novel Shibumi. If you haven’t read those terrific novels, I highly recommend them.
Think about Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick Watson. My husband and I have watched just about every Sherlock Holmes movie and TV episode made in the past century (as well as read all the stories many times). We even went to 221 Baker Street when we were in London–just so we could feel what it was like to walk on that street. Watson is a real character in his own right, and although he can hardly overshadow such a larger-than-life character like Holmes, he does stand out as a well-rounded person because we see who he is apart from Holmes. He has a life when Holmes is gone (which he tends to do a lot).
Tell Them to Get a Life
This is what you want to think about as you create and develop your secondary characters. They do not live for your protagonist; they all have lives that take place in their world when they are not in those scenes with your lead player. The more you can give them a life outside the novel’s scenes, the better. Don’t just give them a past and some physical attributes. Spend some time thinking about what their life is now. Ask: What would this character be doing if you removed the protagonist from the story? What would their life look like? What problems are they facing in their personal life right now? Giving them a problem that is unconnected to the plot is a great element to add. Why? Because now you have a subplot. And don’t just give them any problem; think of something that can tie in with your theme and enhance the main plot. This is what secondary characters can do best.
Make Their Needs Clash
Here’s an example. Let’s say you are writing a novel about a woman named Debby who is struggling with infertility issues. Her goal is to get pregnant, and she’s in despair trying everything to conceive. Her need is destroying her marriage and affecting her job performance. But she is so grateful for her best friend Joan. Joan isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, and she’s been BFF (best friends forever) with Debby since kindergarten. Now, Joan’s got a boyfriend who is pushing the relationship, and she’s not sure how committed she is. Whereas Debby’s been married for some time and is committed, but her husband is pulling away (kind of the opposite). Just when things are really falling to pieces with Debby (who may not be letting on just how badly she wants to have a baby), Joan accidentally gets pregnant. She’s in turmoil about this because she’s not married and doesn’t want a baby at this point. What does she do? She tries to tries to keep this news from Debby, knowing it might upset her. But Debby finds out–right when Joan has decided to have an abortion.
Now you have some great conflict. Their friendship will be stretched because these two characters’ deepest fears and core needs are clashing. I’ve read a lot of books that have subplots thrown in that have little connection to the main plot. And those secondary characters involved in those subplots have a disconnect with the protagonist. What I’m trying to show here is that if you create secondary characters who have a life of their own, with their own needs and fears, and make those things clash with the protagonist’s visible and/or spiritual goal (as discussed in earlier posts), you will enrich your story a thousandfold. Don’t leave them stranded outside, waving their hands and hoping you’ll notice them. Bring them to the fore, and give them their time in the limelight.
This week, take a look at your secondary characters. Make sure you’ve created a life they live outside the novel’s main plot. Think what their story would be in your novel if your protagonist went away on vacation for a year. What would they be doing? Bring some of this into the scenes with your character. Try to come up with a subplot that clashes with the protagonist’s visible goal. This takes work, but your novel will be so much better for it!