By Laura Drake
I don’t know about you, but I can’t write a book without secondary characters. Yes, I’ve read books without them (or ones where they had tiny roles), but I can’t write that way.
I mean, where would The Lion King be without the hyenas? Where would Westley be without Fezzik? (or Billy Crystal as Miracle Max - Love him), or, for that matter, Hamlet without Yorik?
You get the idea.
Yes, secondary characters can be enjoyed for their comedy, their loyalty, or their stupidity…but other than entertainment and to fill word count, why include them?
A secondary character can allow your protagonist to talk. You know that dialog is waaay more compelling than thoughts, right? It also allows you to slip in backstory in an interesting way, because it’s natural to talk about your history with a new friend. The reader gets filled in at the same time as the secondary character, and hopefully it deepens the relationship between your protagonist and your readers!
I’ve written forty pages of a Women’s Fiction novel, and I’m stuck. I’ve written myself into a corner. My heroine is awesome. She’s independent, loyal, stubborn and isolated; trusting no one. Seriously kick-ass.
She can’t spend the rest of the book, thinking. Even doing and thinking is Boooring. It would help for her to have a friend, or a sidekick to talk to, to reveal her backstory, to show her personality. But she’s too closed off to do that!
Since I haven’t solved that puzzle, the book sits unfinished (well, that and other book deadlines). If anyone has any insight into this dilemma, I’d love to see it in the comments!
An easy way to show more about the protagonist is to have a sidekick who contrasts; someone pretty much the opposite. In The Sweet Spot, Charla is an old-fashioned ranch wife who wins blue ribbons at the county fair for her peach pies, only wants to care for her family, and what is within the four walls of her home.
At first, they clash (conflict is good, no?) But it turns out that, under the surface, they have a lot in common. They become friends, teaming up against the judgment of the narrow-minded women of the town.
As Depth Charges
Secondary characters add depth to the book. In Nothing Sweeter , the hero is an old fashioned rancher, set in his ways, who has a moral compass chipped out of stone. Think Marlboro Man with an attitude.
His brother, Wyatt, is gay. He left home at eighteen and never has never returned to Colorado, until his father dies at the opening of the book.
Trying to show the brothers’ intricate relationship was a real challenge. Max loves his younger brother. But his lifestyle is so foreign – so opposite his experience and values - he’s also been glad not to have to deal with Wyatt in his face all those years. That’s no longer an option, since they both inherited the land and all the bills that came with it. They have to work together.
It was an intricate dance, to show them as humans. To show Wyatt without stereotype, and Max without making him look like an ignorant hick. Only my readers can tell me if I succeeded, but you can see how a relationship like this could deepen a story.
As Reader Glue
Secondary characters are great sequel/series fodder! In my small town Widow’s Grove series, the only character to appear in all four books will be the owner of the Farmhouse Café, Jesse. She’s the town matchmaker who looks like a ditzy blonde, until you find she’s a math whiz who gave up an MIT education to marry her childhood sweetheart.
I just finished book #2, The Reasons to Stay, and a Delta Force Sniper with jail time in his backstory who befriended a ten year old gangster wannabe is going to be the hero in book # 4. Yeah, there’s an easy arc.
The point is, readers fall in love with those secondary characters, and would run out to buy a book that starred those characters.
So what do you think? Do you use secondary characters in your writing? Why? Who are your faves?
“The second entry in Drake’s Sweet on a Cowboy series (after The Sweet Spot) is another character-driven contemporary western with more heart than heat. Rancher Max Jameson, stunned by the unexpected death of his father, is determined to keep the family spread in Steamboat Springs, Colo., despite pressure to sell to a greedy neighbor. His brother, Wyatt, tries to help out, though the sibling relationship is strained due to Max’s discomfort with the fact that Wyatt is gay.
Bree Tanner is scarred physically and mentally after being wrongfully convicted of and imprisoned for her ex-boss’s shady financial dealings; now exonerated and free, she decides to start over by helping to raise rodeo bulls on the Jameson ranch.
Max’s tough exterior masks relatable fear, his relationship with Wyatt is handled gracefully, and Bree’s genuine shame about her past makes her sympathetic. While Max and Bree’s romantic relationship is secondary to their internal and interpersonal struggles, complex characters and some fun full-riding scenes balance out the seriousness.”