by C. Patrick Schulze
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When writing your novel, have you ever cut back or cut out a character you liked? How about one you didn’t like? Have you ever promoted a secondary character into a larger role within your novel? These events happen all the time in novel writing and, in fact, should happen. Secondary characters are as common as leaves on a tree but have the power to kill both your writing and your novel. Despite this, they are as necessary to a good novel as your major characters.
How do they kill a novel? They can take over roles that belong to other characters. It is most onerous if they take over that of a major character like the hero. In this case, the protagonist diminishes in stature which, in turn, makes readers less empathetic toward the him. And we all know an unlikable hero is the kiss of death to a novel. Further, if you incorporate too many secondary characters, they can confuse and overpower the reader and produce the same result as the unsympathetic hero.
To keep the number and roles of your secondary characters in check, you can assign all of your characters to one of three levels of importance.
Primary Characters: Hero, Villain, Sidekick
Secondary Characters: Any necessary support character to move the story toward its conclusion
Fringe Characters: There for setting or imagery, walk-ons, if you will.
How do you decide which characters to include? Remember, your story is about your hero, not the secondary characters, so only include those who might affect the core beliefs, attitudes or goals of your major characters. Not counting your fringe characters, a rule of thumb for a four hundred page novel suggests you might have three main characters and four to six secondary characters.
So, once you’ve decided upon your secondary characters, how might you bring those guys to life so they enhance your novel?
You might give them a “story” of their own. By this I mean have them in some sort of minor crisis when they enter your novel. For example, they might be “in a mood” when your hero meets them. Of course your reader will never learn what the secondary character’s story is or why he’s in the mood he’s in. Your reader might simply find them more interesting and memorable if you have the secondary character come into the novel with something going on in his life. Though he’s not a minor character, think the White Rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland.” From the first moment you see him, he’s in a hurry and is, therefore, more interesting.
You can also use props to make them more memorable. Just introduce their prop before they come into the novel. Does your secondary character use a cane? Have the hero comment on it’s interesting carvings before we meet the guy who uses it. The use of props is a proven technique to introduce and improve your secondary characters.
Another option is to give them a frailty, but make it something normal. If we revert to our guy with the cane, maybe he suffers from arthritis. This gives your reader a hook on which to hang their impressions of this character.
One last tip on how to make a secondary character interesting to your readers. Make him an eccentric. This always latches on to readers’ imaginations. Just be sure you have only one eccentric per novel, okay?
The secret to secondary characters is, of course, to insure they do not upstage your major characters. Just keep in mind they are there to enhance and not overshadow your lead characters. Keep them in their correct categories and you’ll do all right.
Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.
C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”