Writing Worthwhile Secondary Characters
By Anne Hawley
How well do you know your secondary and tertiary characters?
A common early-draft issue is minor characters who act as mere props for the protagonist’s arc. Need a crisis for a main character? Subject a secondary character to an accident or illness. Need a contrast to your heroine? Pick a few top-of-mind traits (the nerd, the bully, the class clown), assign them to a body in the scene, and designate the body “Sidekick.”
And that’s okay. Your creative mind is giving you placeholders so you can get the heart of your story onto the page.
But when it’s time to revise, it’s your job to interrogate every one of those minor characters; to replace clichés with original ideas; to be sure that everybody in the whole story is tightly bound to your theme and plot.
Stories aren’t real life and characters aren’t real people.
This means that there is no room in a well-crafted story for random actions, traits or people. Your story doesn’t care about every grocery checker or barista or UPS driver who interacts with your main character, no matter how quirky, colorful, delightful or “realistic” they may be.
Your story only cares about interactions that move your main character through the changes they must make to get what they want and need.
It sounds harsh, but there’s some good news: chances are, your creative mind has hidden everything you need inside all your placeholder characters. You probably already subconsciously know something about each of them. It’s just a question of teasing out the hints you’ve left yourself.
This one’s bleached-blond hair, that one’s preference for jazz, the type of family business run by the other one: look closely and there’s probably a detail that you can tug on to unravel that walk-on character’s whole, deep role in your protagonist’s story.
If you’ve subjected a minor character to an accident for plot reasons, can you change the nature of the accident so it has more story relevance? If the sidekick is a cliché, can you give them a trait that drives the story forward at a critical moment? Do any of your secondary and tertiary characters serve duplicate purposes? Could any be combined? How many UPS drivers and baristas can you simply leave out?
The world, as Shakespeare said, must be peopled. But unlike the real world, your novel should be peopled only with specific, purposeful characters.