Main characters carry the greatest weight in a story, but it’s uncommon for a great story to come out of just a main character in a vacuum. While the term may vary, secondary characters are close to the main character, very present in the story, and can’t rightly be called “minor” characters. Understanding their common uses in relation to the essential elements of story can arm you to make a deeper, more purposeful supporting cast.
Secondary character roles are often cast to best complement the main character. They operate within a relationship with the lead characters, as friends, companions, protectors, annoyances, etc. Consider the roles of Hermione, Ron, and Draco in the Harry Potter series. They’re colorful and drastically different characters with a variety of strengths and weaknesses against which Harry’s become clear.
While the specific ways this works could make up a series of blog posts unto themselves, for now let is suffice to say secondary characters provide context for the lead, cluing the audience to what features are good or bad in the main character.
The comments, actions, opinions, and pressures of secondary characters often supply plot points. Consider how often a journey gets derailed when a friend gets lost, or kidnapped, or misled by the antagonist. These are the characters whose betrayal would create the largest effect on the main character, whose affections would complicate things, and whose prejudices or scruples can shift commitment to the goal.
As an example, consider the Fellowship of the Ring. Without the crew of secondary characters and their deliberately independent action, the plot of the Lord of the Rings books would have been severely limited. That particular epic relies on powerful supporting characters.
Secondary characters expand the world of the story. In both previous examples, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, each of the supporting characters has a rich background that added diversity to the story, as well as a reason to explore another facet of the world.
It doesn’t have to be just a reason to describe a fantasy world, this works in a contemporary fiction world too. Consider the 1998 version of You’ve Got Mail. The characters in the little bookshop presented an unusual snapshot of the working class of that neighborhood, while the super-rich Fox family paint a picture of an eccentric and detached clan.
Characters and their relationship to a developing theme were the subject of a recent post here, but let’s consider this in terms of the immediate supporting cast. Themes often develop within character arcs, where a character’s opinion either changes or grows stronger as a result of what they experience. Secondary characters, depending on how big a role they play, usually have enough development that they experience a developmental arc alongside the main character.
As good themes are multi-dimensional, the experience of supporting characters can deepen the discussion. If the story explores love between parents and children, and the main character decides loyalty and sacrifice are the best route for him, consider setting up a secondary character whose experience teaches them when severing a relationship with either a parent or their own child is justified. (Or flip-flop it, it’s up to you.)
Reading is, essentially, using words to vividly hallucinate. While a story’s structure or perspective tends to limit how much a main character is actually described, secondary characters get much more attention. If your story is told in first-person narration, it’s the secondary characters who get the main character’s focus. They’re getting the most screen time, so make them interesting.
No, not just visually interesting, but interesting as a whole. The fictional world and how it functions is described best in the way these secondary characters behave, the way they think, how they accomplish things, how they argue, how they problem-solve, etc. Just think for a second about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That supporting cast (and many others in stories where the main character is new to the world) are the living handbook and helpful/not-so-helpful guides on the journey. This is true for the audience as well as the main character.
While these aren’t the only applications of secondary characters, they’re big ones. If you’re currently working on something, take some time to determine who the secondary characters are and how they’re serving your story. You might even take each one and go through these elements (and any others you feel important). Scribble down a sentence or two, even a list if you prefer, of ways they’re contributing and how they might serve better in those areas.
“The biggest thing to keep in mind when managing a large cast of characters is that every single time we see a character is a chance to make them feel differentiated. You want markers for those characters that helps your readers sort of store them in the back of their mind and carry them. So that if they don’t see them for another pages, all you have to do is sort of pull out that marker again, and they’ll remember who this person is and what they want, and what their relationship is to the bigger characters.” (Angela Flournoy)
“they can be artfully used in dialog to reveal aspects of the main characters’ personalities and backgrounds that the reader might not be privy to otherwise. Secondaries can define weaknesses and strengths in your primary characters that their point of view alone could never reveal.”
“In developing side characters keep in mind the ways in which they help to reveal your main characters’ personalities and further your plot. Secondary characters should not be stuck in at random and without purpose. Debra Dix wrote that if secondaries are not contributing to the main characters or the plot, they should be removed.”
Focus and discipline to finish the main character; reducing distraction
“A lot of writers go charging into their plot once they have their central characters nailed down, without ever thinking too much about who else is there…or who else could be there. One of the useful ways of checking for plot, character, and backstory holes is to stop and think about this a little.”
“I find it useful to keep at least a sketchy list (elevator folks, bus folks, barista, sax player, boss, coworkers) in case I need to mention somebody. Mostly, just thinking about who could be around is enough to let them slip in where they are needed, and if somebody on the list turns out to be more important than I thought, I will usually get an idea of what they are like when they start becoming more important to the main story.”
Hierarchy; functional naming in a draft
“Our stories need the messiness and complications of multiple characters.”
“The second banana is given what is needed to make him seem real, a true complement for the story lead.”
“Readers should never have to guess who the main character is.”
“These characters have a stake in your unfolding story just as the main character does. See if you can discover what it is.”
“But don’t saddle your character with unexplained eccentric behavior. Anything too blatant needs to be meaningful within the context of the story.”