Secondary Characters, Learn to Love Them

If you’ve never questioned my sanity, you might be after reading that title.  But I bet that I can say four names that will change your mind; Hermione Granger, Gandalf, Rue and Four/Tobias.  Secondary characters make the story.

If you’ve never really explored all the different ways to use secondary characters in your book, here are just a few things you can do with them.

  • Comic relief.  It’s obvious, maybe, but it’s really useful.  No matter how serious a story is, I expect to laugh at least once.  I mean really, what can’t benefit from a laugh?  Your main character might not be the right person for that sort of thing, though.  That’s why characters like Matt from Wheel of Time work so very well.  Rand’s got too much of a stick up his ass to me funny.
  • Crazy sub plots.  These are always fun.  You can do thing with subplots that you could never do with the main plot of a story.  People getting into crazy hijinks, racing horses, falling in love in such a way it doesn’t have to be complicated.  Whatever you’d like to do that seems to weird to put in the main part of a story, you can explore with a secondary character.
  • Extra conflict.  I honestly think I could do a whole series of posts about ways to add extra conflict with secondary characters.  I might do that at some point, but for now, let me just do a quick overview.  Extra conflict comes in many forms.  You can have a rival lover, a person who just doesn’t like your character, someone who wants the same job as your main character, someone who is teasing the main character’s kid.  It can also come in the form of a friend of your main character who’s running into their own trouble that your mc now has to help with.  Or at least is affected by.
  • If your books has different cultures, a secondary character is a perfect way to explore them.  Fantasy novels are a great example.  If your main character has never run into a person from some other country, they can ask all sort of questions, thereby giving you a great chance for exposition that feels natural.  The secondary character can ask the same questions of the mc.  And thus a whole bunch of information that your reader needs is there.
  • Your secondary characters are going to see the world differently that your mc.  At least, I hope so.  I mean, I assume your characters aren’t all cookie cutters or flat representations of people.  So, you should use them to show a different point of view than the one your mc represents.  There are very few times in real life that there’s a solid right or wrong answer to a situation.  Why should there be in your story?  You can use secondary characters to explore different viewpoints.
  • Your mc is a real person.  So it stands to reason that different people are going to see your character differently.  Their lover will see them one way, their parents another.  The guy who rings them up at the check out will see them a whole different way.  If you worry that your mc is too good, without some flaws that will round them out, a secondary character who doesn’t much care for her will do the trick nicely.  It’s also nice because rather than saying the character flaw is good or bad, it just puts the fact out there, and lets the reader develop his own opinion.  You’ll also show a lot about your character based on how she treats the people around her.  How does she treat her betters, equals and inferiors?
  • Finally, a secondary character can be useful to foreshadow events that are coming in an indirect way.  They’re the perfect tools for misdirection.  While your flashing your mc about, doing all that mc stuff, your secondary character can do all sorts of things undercover.  Or, the other way around.

Your secondary characters have to be there anyway.  Unless you’re doing some sort of strange proof of concept piece where you’ve only got one character who is in a room all by himself, there are going to be people around him.  Might as well use them to their full advantage.

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