Monday, April 20, 2015

Make Better Use of Secondary Characters

By Karen Albright Lin

The circus is not as much fun if players are missing. The juggler is out sick, the casting director forgot to hire the trapeze artist, or the clown car is empty. It can be the same with your novel. It might need an extra character or two. Even if you have a full complement of secondary characters, they may need to be made more robust or play a bigger role.     

It’s usually not enough to simply add a character. That would be like adding one more dancer to a group of twenty-six background dancers. Make him or her count.

In Harold and Maude, secondary characters make this magnificent movie about death and love into a perfect one. In an early scene, Harold’s blind date beats him at his own staging-suicides-game by simulating hari-kari in his living room. It surprises us and mocks his mother’s matchmaking.

It hurts, but sometimes you need to excise one of your characters. Or meld two together so that one plays both roles. On the other hand, you may add one whose job is to create an additional obstacle. Cinderella could have been told without one of the stepsisters; but combined with the wicked stepmother, they became a seemingly insurmountable force. Three is often a magic number. If you have two people that play a role, consider collapsing them into one or adding another to make a happy triangle.

You could use a secondary character as an audience surrogate like Stingo in Sophie’s Choice. He was an observer and commentator on Sophie’s life, current and past. John Wheelwright tells a current story but also Owen’s story in A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Add a character that is much older or much younger to offer another perspective. In Blind Side, Sandra Bullock’s enthusiastic young son only has one essential scene, yet he added a layer of sweetness that helped make this a tender and profound story. Ben Stiller’s future mother-in-law in Meet the Parents plays the quiet role of foil to her overbearing husband. Technically she could disappear from the plot, but it was nice to see someone was rooting for poor Ben.

And speaking of Meet the Parents, you can throw in an animal to add zing. Perhaps give it a prominent role. Painting a cat’s tail—exposure of the subterfuge—sparked the climax showdown between Ben Stiller and antagonist Robert De Niro.

A historical or imaginary character may come forward in time, affecting your story. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which we find Dorian Gray, The Hulk, Dr. Jekyll, and others, is an extreme case of this modus operandi. Many time travel romances use the technique. Reversing that approach, the Middle Grade Magic Treehouse series and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court took us back in time to meet secondary characters.

An ancillary character is not always a mentor, sidekick, or foil. She can be a plot plant. Mysteries often add extra bad guys who seem to have something to do with the crime but don’t. Red herrings are the stuff of great suspense; the more the merrier.

If you write fantasy, consider giving an aunt an unexpected magic power. In any genre, add an impersonator or a disguised character. Stories about trading places and magic tricks abound. TV personality John Stossel posed as a homeless man to see pedestrians’ responses. He could have observed or done surveys or interviewed panhandlers. But making himself into a character was more entertaining and instructive.

You could add a mentor (Fairy Godmother, Gandalf, Mr. Miyagi) or a rival who is seemingly not important to the plot, then make him key to your resolution (Harry Potter’s Lupin Werewolf and Pettigrew Rat).

These are only a few ways you can add, subtract, enhance, or fashion another purpose for a secondary character. Be sure to give us a sense of who they are in relation to your main characters, even if they don’t get much stage time. Give them as much thought as you do your protagonist and antagonist and you’ll add fun layers to your novel.

About the Writer: Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at

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