Writers in the Storm welcomes back Anne Cleeland to share tips on writing Secondary Characters. Anne last helped us sort through the accuracy for details of our historicals.
by Anne Cleeland
A story with compelling secondary characters engages the reader by adding another layer of interest to the story. Whether they are sidekicks, lovers, or shadowy villains, good secondary characters help make the story three dimensional instead of flat, and also make it a lot easier to beef up that all-important word count. As an added bonus, the secondary character often provides the hero with opportunities for bantering or bickering dialogue–always a reader favorite and an easy way to establish likeability.
In most stories, however, there are certain protocols that are expected and probably should be followed when it comes to secondary characters. The writer has to be careful not to violate these unspoken rules at the risk of annoying the reader, because an annoyed reader is not a happy reader. Here are three that work for me:
- Don’t kill off the secondary character everyone loves.
The death of the secondary character is often used to ratchet up the stakes. The late, great Blake Snyder famously said that the hero’s best friend always dies around page 71 of the screenplay—it’s a tried-and-true literary device. But the death should stir the reader’s sympathy on behalf of the hero, not make the reader feel betrayed because they’ve invested in the character.
The red-shirted crewmen on Star Trek were famous for being doomed from the start, so no one missed them when they dutifully got themselves killed by a gorn or something.
Sometimes you get the feeling that the writer was staring at his laptop, out of ideas, and decided to kill off a beloved character so as to be “edgy,” or to “allow the story to go in a new direction” (read: out of ideas.) To me, these deaths always seem too contrived; shock value for the sake of shock value and not authentic.
Examples of “good” secondary character deaths that evoked sympathy for the hero: Beth in Little Women; Rue in Hunger Games; Horatio in Hamlet; Helen Burns in Jane Eyre.
Examples of “bad” deaths that made the reader recoil: Dumbledore in Harry Potter; Boromir in Lord of the Rings; Lady Sybil in Downtown Abbey.
2. Don’t make the secondary character’s role unclear.
As a reader, I want to fit the character into the appropriate slot, so I don’t like it when the writer muddies it up. No one expects Dr. Watson, Sancho Panza or Samwise Gangee to take a turn at being the hero. No one expects Falstaff to start speaking of weighty matters, and no one expects Obi-wan to start wise cracking –everyone should instead stay in role.
Exception: I suppose there is an exception to this rule when the secondary character’s role is supposed to be unclear. Examples are The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz; Rebecca in Rebecca; Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Examples of secondary characters who break role and cause general confusion: Star Wars had more than a few, including Anakin Skywalker and Lando. You’d think an epic good vs. evil plot would stay within the lines, but you’d be wrong—and again, you got the feeling that the writers were out of ideas, and floundering around.
And speaking of which, remember Paradise Lost? If you do, you probably remember Satan more than you do the protagonist, you-know-Who.
Peter Pan’s Captain Hook is another ambivalent villain, as is the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, or Snape in Harry Potter. Either they’re secret good guys, or they’re villains, but make up your mind, for heaven’s sake.
3. Don’t let the secondary character outshine the hero.
Every writer knows this feeling; the secondary character develops a life of his own. The writer has a choice; beat the character back into submission, or allow him to take over the story and hope for the best, as was the case with Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, Huckleberry Finn from Tom Sawyer or Jacob Black from the Twilight series.
However, in most cases I prefer that the writer keeps everyone firmly in their chosen role. Storytelling involves certain expectations and you don’t want to cause confusion or annoyance, see Rules 1 and 2.
Georgette Heyer wrote a wonderful book called Cotillion, where the archetypal hero turns out to be not-so-heroic, and instead the dorky secondary character turns out to be the hero. Heyer was a master, however, and caution is advised before trying this on your own.
Examples of secondary characters who outshone the hero:
Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Think about it—weren’t you just flipping the pages, waiting for him to show up again? Amy in Little Women is another example. I know we were supposed to applaud Jo’s choice of husband, but Amy’s beat him to pieces. Lestat, in Interview with the Vampire (who arguably started this whole vampire thing), and Long John Silver from Treasure Island (what is it about pirates?)
Can you think of other rules, or examples?
Anne Cleeland holds a degree in English from UCLA as well as a degree in law from Pepperdine University, and is a member of the California State Bar. She writes a historical fiction series set in the Regency period as well as a contemporary mystery series set in New Scotland Yard. A member of the Historical Novel Society and Mystery Writers of America, she lives in California and has four children.