I really love secondary characters. The dutiful lieutenant, the third wheel, the sidekick you wish had a little more screen time. You can keep your flashy superheroes, your brave solo adventurers, and even your brooding loners with no one to rely on. Give me the awkward strain of the muted ambition of someone destined to support their pal in the limelight, or the true, self-sacrificing loyalty of a Sam Gamgee. Show me that no hero ever gets that way by making it alone, and I’ll see a story that just got an immediate boost in character depth and development, just the way I like it.
From a purely technical point of view, having a buddy, or brother/sister/cousin for your main character just makes things easier. You’ve got someone right there to talk aloud to, argue with, bounce ideas off of, and be appropriately skeptical about the daring, foolproof plan so you don’t need to have all those conversations in one character’s head. They can move the story along by getting into trouble or getting your hero out of it, but they have to be more than just a plot device.
Because as we all know, everyone is the protagonist of their own life. They may intersect with your hero’s journey for a moment, but even the most minor character has a story with a beginning too, and if your hero doesn’t get them killed, they’ll have their very own hopes and dreams, accomplishments and failures leading towards their independent end.
We’re all part of this giant web of spheres and bubbles and connections, touching one another at one tiny point in a long, long line. It’s huge and wonderful and terrifying to think about. If you’ve ever been on a bus or subway and seen everyone in their own little universe, moving towards the same destination for a hundred different purposes, thinking a million different thoughts with their headphones in, you know what I mean.
Just think: in my story, you’re just one of my blog readers. I see what you say in your comments to me, and I weave you into my narrative by using your support as evidence that I’m an awesome writer and should succeed in my chosen objectives. You don’t know what I do when I’m not blogging, and I don’t know your kids.
I don’t know that your dog just threw up on your favorite rug, or that you’ve got a really important test next Tuesday, or that your husband just bought you that diamond necklace you’ve been eyeing, but hasn’t gotten around to giving it to you yet because in his story, he’s stressed out because his boss is having his own novel-worthy drama about his wife, and so on, and so on.
And that’s the point. Even your minor characters should be novel-worthy, in their own way, because that’s how rich and complex a universe should be. I don’t mean the servant that opens doors should get six paragraphs about how his grandfather has gout, but those supporting roles that do get some exposure? That prison guard that your hero befriended and then drugged so he could escape is so going to get fired. Maybe the widow and baby of the only-kinda-bad-guy he killed are going to end up in the poorhouse because she can’t support herself without being able to read and write, so what’s she going to do?
It’s stuff like that that humanizes a story, gives it an extra dimension and a realistic grimness that makes every choice your hero faces important in its repercussions, if not its immediacy. It’s why you sometimes have the fighter that refuses to kill, and those moments of mercy and compassion that endear your characters to your readers. It’s also how your story can grow monstrously out of control in seconds, but that’s another post.
Those secondary characters are your gateway to that world. They’re an amazing opportunity to bulk up your reality and relatability quotients, and unfortunately, that opportunity is not always exploited to its fullest. So next time you’ve got to create Minor Functionary #3, think about what his living room looks like, and the fact that he hates mushrooms and can’t swim. I guarantee your world will come even more alive in your head, and it will translate onto the page.