So a few weeks ago, I guest posted on the blog of a friend and Kingdom Pen writing team member, Brandon Miller, about Three Questions for Developing Characters. You can go check it out and stick around on his site because he has some pretty cool information there. But, for today, he’s popped in over here to give us some cool thoughts about secondary characters.
So, without more introduction, may I present Brandon Miller and secondary characters!
Secondary characters have a bundle of responsibilities for being just secondary.
Maybe they should start a support group.
We’ve heard the old clichés: ”every character is the hero of their own story,” “Allies are people too,” “Love interests have to be well developed characters.” Writers put a lot of work into developing secondary (or even tertiary) characters. While developing these characters can aid your story (and should be done), too much development (or development without direction can cause your story to lose focus. And when your story loses focus, it loses readers. Keeping your story focused requires knowing why your secondary characters exist in your story, and how they are going to improve the readers’ adventure.
To that end, here are three main areas of your story which can be deepened (and focused) by secondary characters:
Conflict, in its basic form, gets old fast. Villain punches hero; hero punches villain. Clouds of dust, a little blood if it’s not a children’s book, then resolution. Nothing terribly exciting. The entire hero-villain conflict is important to your story, but by itself it can be dull and repetitious. In order to spice your story’s conflict up, you need to raise the personal stakes (of both hero and reader). Change the source of some of the conflict from the villain to the ally (or another secondary character). If the hero has to go to war with someone he cares about, the conflict will be personal and deeper than the hero-villain conflict.
Give your story hero-ally conflict by creating an ally who isn’t complacent. To do this, you need to create allies with their own priorities, beliefs, and personalities. (This would be where the character development comes in.) Then, find the points where your secondary character’s traits and your hero’s traits collide, and make sure that issue comes to the forefront in your story. Let things get heated. Let things get out of hand. But keep it real. Don’t create conflict for conflict’s sake. Make sure that your characters all really (and believably) believe in the cause they’re fighting over.
Once your non-evil characters are bickering amongst themselves, your story will have captured an element of reality and deepened the conflict of your story. Then, it will be time to move along.
Some stories feel narrow and underdeveloped because of the number of characters they contain. Epic fantasy stories with tales of clashing armies and toppling kingdoms should be full of people (who have actual names), but too often they feature a main character, maybe one mentor character, and a villain. The believability of the story is compromised simply because there aren’t enough characters involved. Now, I’m not suggesting that you lapse into a Numbers 1 style roster hashing, but names by themselves carry a small significance for the depth of your story. Give your butler, cab driver, and livery boy names, even if they only show up once. Let the reader know that lives exist in the storyworld outside of the story by giving them names that do.
On a more character development driven note, you should work to give your secondary characters lives outside of the story. Because your plot will naturally follow your hero’s life and problems, making a point of showing your ally’s schedule complications will help remind the reader that a whole world is moving outside of the hero’s mind. Maybe the ally can’t make the hero’s promotion ceremony because of a daughter’s birthday, or another friend’s worst-day-ever meltdown. Let things happen to characters outside of the hero’s sphere and readers will begin to see that the scope of the story world goes way beyond the hero’s narrow perception. (And hey, maybe clashing schedules will provide room for some conflict along the way.)
Themes are hard. And for all the great resources out there (*cough* Kingdom Pen’s fantastic theme mastery course *cough*) no one can help you create the exact theme implementation device your story needs, because only you know exactly what theme your story is trying to convey, or what tools you have to convey it with.
All that being said, secondary characters provide a great opportunity for you to create a deep theme with multiple, fairly represented viewpoints. Usually, your hero-villain conflict will determine the basis of your story’s theme. However, adding secondary characters can deepen that conflict. For example, if your hero-villain conflict represents a forgiveness-revenge theme, then adding a secondary character who is a police officer can add a third viewpoint to the debate, one of an enforcer. Or perhaps a judge can add a voice of justice to the theme’s conflict.
Using secondary characters is an excellent way to flesh out the story’s theme without creating long internal monologues in your hero’s mind or sermons on your mentor’s teaching hour.
That’s about it. Well-developed secondary characters can either strain or deepen a story in many ways. Making sure you know what purposes your characters serve in your story is the first step toward creating a story which will reach deep into your reader’s imagination and create a storyworld without bounds.
Shout out to Hope for letting me invade this corner of the internet today!