Secondary Characters’ Primary Responsibilities
I think Anne R. Allen is secretly, somehow reading my mind. I had been planning on writing my blog this week on the topic of secondary characters and then she blogged on how many is too many characters (something that always needs to be touched upon when discussing secondary characters). Of course, she is always wonderful in her blog posts, explaining things, and giving really terrific and helpful advice. I’m going to try my best not to repeat any of it here. (Try being the most important word in that sentence).
So, secondary characters… they are essential to any book.
- They support our protagonists making it possible for them to do all that they need to do to achieve their goals.
- They give the author the opportunity to “show” the protagonist’s thoughts by giving them someone to talk to.
- They “people” your story making for a more realistic world.
- And, finally, so often, they try to take over the book from the protagonist because they simply don’t realize that they aren’t the hero of the book.
I don’t know what I would do without my secondary characters. A good number of my books come from my secondary characters because they insist on getting their own book where they truly are the protagonist.
So let’s look a little more deeply at these people who we can do without (and believe me, they know it!).
What differentiates your secondary character from your protagonist is simply that the story isn’t about them. They are still completely three-dimensional characters with their own ideas of what they should be doing and know where they came from (you should know some of that too, depending on how important they are to your story).
Your secondary characters, just like your protagonist, should have good points and bad. They should be strong and smart (remember, they very well might end up as a protagonist in a future book). They should have flaws and do stupid things as well because they are human. The trick is how well do we know these people?
Obviously, we don’t know them as well as we know the protagonist—and our readers don’t need to either. Sadly, secondary characters are there to be used, not explored, or to go on adventures like the protagonist. They are there serving a purpose (those listed above). Truly, the most important thing secondary characters do is support the protagonist and shine a light on them.
So, the main point of Allen’s blog is one that I really feel compelled to talk about here—the number of characters. How many is too many? Well, there isn’t really a definite number on that, but really, try to keep the number of named characters to a minimum. If you absolutely can’t do that, having a list of “dramatis personae” at the beginning of your book isn’t a bad idea. I’ve done that with my Ladies’ Wagering Whist Society books because where I started out with seven secondary characters, in six books has more than doubled. Honestly, they’re getting a little out of hand! If that means that I don’t even mention a few characters, well, so be it. I loved them when they were essential to their books, but now they can easily be forgotten.
Which brings me to another point I did want to make. How do you distinguish between a secondary character and a tertiary one?
A secondary character is someone who not only has a name and a description in your book but a bit of that back story. They have more “lines”. They show up in more scenes. On the other hand, a tertiary character may or may not have a name. They may or may not have a description and usually, they’ll only show up once, maybe twice in a book. They’ll be completely forgettable, in other words.
Because of the nature of Regency romance books, I’ve got billions of these super minor characters. I write ball scenes where the hero might dance with two or three girls, all of whom need names and super brief descriptions. Their mothers might as well. But they are there, serve their purpose, and then are gone. I could probably give half of them the same name and my readers probably won’t even notice they’re so forgettable.
On the other hand, if you give them one little quirk, they will become memorable, and that can be fun just so long as them being memorable doesn’t make it so that the really important secondary characters aren’t remembered.
Having interesting secondary characters can make your novel stand out. It can make your story more fun. But best of all, it will make life so much easier and better for both you and your protagonist.
Before we go, don’t forget that I will be presenting my talk on Accountability: Six Techniques to Get the Words Written and the Book Done on May 29th, 2020 at 12 pm Eastern/9 am Pacific (6 pm here in Belgium). You can sign up for it here and I’ll send you the Zoom link. Also by signing up, even if you can’t make it, you’ll still be able to watch the video of the talk. Hope to see you there!
And as always, if you ever need help with the book you’re writing, I edit and am a book coach. Don’t hesitate to give me a shout!