February ,22 2015
Writing Wisdom #5: Secondary Characters
I realized it's been a bit too long since I did one of these posts. Since they're some of my favourites why not jump right back into it.
If you haven't seen the previous posts in this series, I'll link them down below so you can join the journey so far : )
Writing Wisdom #1
Writing Wisdom #2: Getting Started
Writing Wisdom #3: Any Name But Jack
Writing Wisdom #4: Daring Description
I'll be the first person to argue secondary characters are just as relevant as main characters. I remember in one writing course in high school, my teacher was inclined to say secondary characters were secondary because they weren't important. And further, since they weren't important, they didn't need much detail. We tended to disagree on this point.
Any character in your story needs purpose or they shouldn't exist at all. The same goes for secondary characters that appear for a few chapters or only a few lines. These characters are crucial for interacting with your main character and can sometimes provide overarching relevance the main character does not. For example, in mystery novels, the missing or dead party is often a character that may not ever appear in the story, but has immense relevance to the overall plot. In this case, without them, the main character becomes irrelevant, as does the whole story for that matter.
So I made a list of some of the most important characteristics I think should not be ignored when designing secondary characters for your novel, short story, etc.
They Need a Background Story
This is a tricky element, but important. In real life, no one becomes the person they are without experiencing certain changing moments. Why should your characters be any different? Yet, for secondary characters, the need to blatantly express their pasts or motives may never come to fruition. But even a small bit of detail, perhaps one sentence or so, will help to define their character for the few scenes they exist.
Use Them to Their Full Benefit
I have read books before where there are a large range of secondary characters. We're talking 10+ people who could very easily have been 3 people. It's important to use the characters you create to their full benefit. If you can make a story work with 3 characters who alternate in and out of the story effectively, why introduce unnecessary complications with people who you don't need. Don't make them pointless, give them purpose.
Keep Them Flat
Sometimes characters are referred to as 'flat' and 'round' when distinguishing them from one another. The difference lies in the depth of character that is developed. Main characters are round characters because they have complicated emotions, very detailed morals, and are the most real in comparison to real life. Flat characters, on the other hand, have detail but nowhere near as much depth. It may seem contradictory to my first point about needing a backstory for your characters, but you do want to keep them as secondary characters. Never let your secondary character overshadow your main character. If you find yourself getting more excited about aspects of a secondary character than first, stop and rethink. Keeping the focus on the protagonist is always priority one.