Grey Characters: Secondary Characters
- August 14, 2019
In some ways it’s easier to write a book with a smaller cast. Limiting your writing to the perspectives of just a few characters bears many challenges of its own, such as making sure you don’t step outside the bounds of any viewpoints or share information the characters wouldn’t know yet. Depending on your story, those types of challenges can be well worth powering through.
What about when you want to write a bigger world? One with varied cultures and places and personalities, one with the type of world-building that makes a reader study your words with awe? Such writing requires more than just careful placing of mountain ranges and crafting the religion of a remote people somewhere in the desert. It requires a little time away from your beloved main cast to expand on what sort of people inhabit your scenes, and that can be daunting if you haven’t done it before. What if you put in the extra work and your characters still come across as flat and underdeveloped? What if the secondary characters begin to influence the plot more than you meant them to, taking on a life of their own and cheerfully shoving your MCs out of the way? All characters should have a little something to do with your plot, but most writers know that characters rarely prefer to listen to our orders and follow the paths we set for them.
Never fear! I’ve summarized the two things that make your secondary characters compelling without underwhelming or overwhelming the overall story. These are things you’ll want to make sure each character with more than one or two lines has—or even if that’s all they have—so they fill their proper places and remain there.
Before anything else happens with the plot you have to remember that your story is filled with people. Not cardboard cut-outs with a few canned lines. Not overdramatic fools who bumble through your scenes in rages or tears and make readers cringe and close the book. So it’s important to remember that all of your mentioned characters need a few things to get them started: a personality, a background, and a motive. Since these are secondary characters, you may not always explore all of these things in the actual manuscript. Whether they’re a mopey tradesman selling onions from his cart to feed his family or a pretentious minor villain who likes causing chaos because his older brother abandoned him as a teenager, you as the author need to understand them well enough to write them convincingly on the page. I find it helps to imagine a meeting (usually a coffee date or a conference call) with whatever character is in question, because if I think of them as a “real” person, I can then write their portion of the tale like I know all about it.
(Note: this is one of those times when the quote “everything in moderation” becomes significant. Writing is difficult—a truly daunting task—and time-consuming, and most writers don’t have oodles of time to spend fleshing out the back story and personality of every single character that treads the landscape of their story. That’s fine, and don’t stress yourself out about it too much. If you leave a place marker for a secondary character and then go back to it during your editing phase, that gives you more time to focus on your main cast and worry about the rest of the crew at a later date.
How do your characters affect the plot? No matter how minor or major they are, this is a really important question for any author. Characters like our mopey tradesman might not affect the plot much, but maybe your leading lady crashes into his cart as she’s fleeing from some of your villain’s henchmen, and maybe fleeing his wrath throws her into the path of her old friend or her love interest. Your characters should be well-developed, but also well considered: what purpose do they serve in the story of your main characters? Sometimes it’s just to flesh out the world you created, but if you have too many of those types your work becomes cluttered and unsatisfying. It’s a bit of an art, but knowing when to cut a character that doesn’t serve a purpose to the plot other than aesthetic or fluff can be crucial. Fluffy bits have their place, but there shouldn’t be too many!
If anyone’s guilty of letting an unplanned secondary character run the show, it’s me. I can never seem to quite finish with a series because there are more stories I want to tell, and more characters I want to explore to the furthest reaches of my abilities. Taking this a step further: all characters should fit somewhere in your plot, but what if one of them gets too bossy and decides they want to run the show? What if your intriguing minor chaos villain decides he wants to take over and be the big baddie after all? This is when you trim his story here and there, taking the wind out of his sails. I know it sounds painful to clip the wings of an interesting character, but that’s what a throwaway document is for. Save the best parts of him and use them for a different story, if you’d like. Your secondary characters won’t necessarily become boring or completely uninteresting if you prune their branches with care: they just won’t overstep their role and steal the focus from the main cast.
A big part of being a writer is connecting the dots. We connect the plot points to each other in a complicated web, we link allies and sunder relationships at will. We understand a little more than most that everything is connected to everything, since that’s usually how we craft our stories. That doesn’t stop with seemingly unimportant characters: it’s our job to know where everything connects, and that includes them. All the backstory in the world won’t save a character from the reader asking “so why is this person even here??” and all the influence they have over the main cast won’t remove confusion a reader might have over why they’re suddenly relevant to the plot. A good writer knows how to connect everything, and how pieces naturally fall into place, so that skill should extend to everyone in your scenes. The reader should follow the path of connections you lay out for them without stumbling over your characters or poor plot devices that shoehorn unnecessary characters into place.
It makes sense to write your characters as real people. It makes sense to give them a purpose both in the lives you imagine for them and for the plot you created. But never forget that you, the writer, are in charge here and not your characters. If something is working that doesn’t technically follow the “rules,” feel free to explore that feeling and see where it goes! If something isn’t working, don’t force it! A lot of the best parts of stories happen by instinct with minimal planning involved. Characters step in out of nowhere and become the best ones you’ve ever come up with. That’s one of the things that makes it incredible to be a true writer, and when those moments happen…they’re worth savoring.