By Rachel Beck
Ever read a book that felt like it was taken over by the secondary characters? Where the main characters couldn’t get a word in edgewise or accomplish anything due to being overshadowed by other characters who think they’re running the show?
Writers are often heavily influenced by their characters. While some writers use an outline to help track their characters progress, other writers pants it and follow their characters lead them. And sometimes, whether it’s to the pleasant discovery… or chagrin of the author, characters who were originally intended to be lesser characters are suddenly demanding more page time.
Even as the writer tries to keep them in the background as a supporting role, that pesky, larger-than-life character fights back. And it may feel at times like your secondary characters are plotting creative ways to hijack the story for their shameless rise to fame, leading you as the author in a direction you hadn’t planned to go. This will naturally affect the plot, other characters and perhaps the heart of the story.
So how can you fight back against strong-willed secondary characters? Prevent them from taking over your book in an epic secondary character coup? Here are three ways to appropriately use secondary characters. Because they do have an important purpose when they’re used appropriately.
Characters often come to crucial realizations regarding plot points and conflicts by talking to a secondary character. Whether it’s the protagonist’s lifelong BFF or a cashier at the convenience store, secondary characters can make for clever plot devices to show rather than tell how the protagonist comes to a conclusion that will propel the book to its resolution. Because if we only had the main character, we’d have to be inside their head all the time…bo-ring! Their day-to-day experiences and conversations with other characters, when balanced appropriately with time for reflection and inner monologue, will capture their journey and character arc most powerfully.
A minor subplot involving secondary characters can mimic the themes found in the main storyline and tie everything together in a satisfying way that also adds depth to your story. Note that not every novel may have room for a subplot, sometimes a tighter word count does not lend itself to subplots. It depends on your genre. But the characters in a subplot should have a connection to the main characters, so it won’t feel like the reader is going back and forth between two separate novels.
A secondary character can be used as part of a character’s conflict. For example, in a romance novel, perhaps your protagonist is struggling with the idea of commitment and believing in happily-ever-after because her father abandoned her family when she was a kid—he can be a small part of the story to show how she must overcome her fractured childhood to move on with her life and realize that she does deserve romance and happiness. But again, remember to keep the father or ex-boyfriend or whoever he might be on the sidelines so that he doesn’t steal the show. Include him only as much as necessary to work out the main character’s conflict and help her work through her past.
So there you have it, a few rules of thumb for corralling your secondary characters and making them behave. Everyone needs a shoulder to cry on, including fictional characters, but remember that readers aren’t going to be flipping pages with excitement during exchanges between the protagonist and some secondary character. They want to get to the heart of the book and its themes, which can be brought out in part by secondary characters, but ultimately it’s going to be the main characters who deliver that emotionally satisfying wrap-up.
All in all, a secondary character should get proportional page time to the amount that they are able to drive forward the goals, motivation and conflict of the main character or characters. Remember, secondary characters, you exist to do the main character’s bidding!