Character month is wrapping up, and Therese and I answer your questions.
Becky Levine asks:
I’d love to see a discussion about the idea that secondary characters reflect (in some way) an aspect of the hero–how you juggle/balance that with making each of them independent/interesting characters in their own right.
Great question, Becky. Who hasn’t created a secondary character only to have that character steal the limelight away from your protagonist and/or demand you tell their story instead of the one you intended? I keep mine in line this way:
Getting the most from your secondary characters
1. Contrast to compare.
You’ll be able to highlight your protagonist’s characteristics more brightly if you have them interact with a secondary character who has the opposite characteristic. For example, if your main character is a ball’s out, fearless daredevil, make her partner a cautious milquetoast. Is your hero an analytical fusspot? Have his sidekick be a free-spirit. You’ll be able milk more conflict out of the relationship and thus highlight your protagonist’s main character tag even more.
2. Give secondary character one defining characteristic (ideally in opposition to your protagonist)–and leave well enough alone.
There’s a reason it’s called a secondary character: it’s there to help you tell your protagonist’s story. It’s not there to have a fully-formed backstory. We don’t need to know if they graduated high school summa cum laude (unless it’s material to the story) or how many siblings they have. It sounds cruel and counterintuitive, but the more you invest in your secondary characters, the less attention you pay to the one who really needs your attention: the protagonist. Give your secondary characters enough love to get the job done, then move on.
3. But don’t fall back on cliches.
Need an high school jock to stir up conflict between your nerdy protagonist and the girl-next-door but you don’t want him to be an arrogant meathead? Think of a character tag outside the box to make him fresh to your reader. Maybe the jock has a physical handicap that he’s overcome. Or works at the SPCA shelter after school. Go through all the cliches you can about high school jocks and run in the opposite direction. One good character tag will make him seem fresh to your reader and provide more juicy conflict for your protagonist.
Thanks for the question, Becky!
Image by herbstkind.