Secondary Characters – A Joy, a Curse, a Great Tool and a Temptation to Overdo
Everyone (okay, almost everyone) loves writing secondary characters. They add spice to a book, they're fun and often funny, they can be used as tools to convey bits of information to your main characters, and they flesh out a book.
The types of friends. relatives or enemies your main characters have tells a reader something personal about your hero or heroine without the author having to be heavy-handed.
A secondary character may be on the page only for a moment or he or she may be threaded throughout the entire book. They can be comic or tragic. But the one thing they cannot be and should never be are characters who outshine the protagonists. It's an easy trap to fall into, because writing secondary characters often feels freeing to an author. Here are some characters who can be funny or foolish, mean or otherwise unsympathetic in a way an author wouldn't want her hero or heroine to be. This seems like very safe territory, and yet...there's danger lurking in those waters. It's very easy to be lured into giving secondary characters more time than is wise.
The temptation to overdo a funny character is especially tempting for a simple reason: secondary characters don't have to carry the tension. The book isn't really about their story, so an author doesn't have to worry as much about keeping the goal at bay or throwing obstacles in that character's way. The outcome for the secondary character means less to the reader (or, if you've written the book well, that should be the case), so there's less at stake for the author.
But if an author relies too much on minor characters, several unfortunate things can happen. The book can appear to be fluff. If nothing important is happening, why should the reader continue reading? Conversely, the secondary character may become so important to the reader that he or she steals the stage from the main characters and the reader no longer cares about the true outcome of the story. Then, too, the reader can become angry and frustrated when the author keeps taking off on tangents related to secondary characters when it's the protagonists' story the reader really wants to know about.
That said, secondary characters are important. If a book takes place in a populated area of any kind, it's unrealistic to never mention those other characters. They have their tasks, as noted above. And there are times when a main character simply needs someone to talk to other than the mirror or themselves. The secondary character can carry out tasks that the main character may not be able to due to time, location or circumstance.
That's not to say that a book always has to have them (think The Old Man and the Sea) and there are books (many of them) where there are very few minor characters and most of the story takes place between one or two people.
So how does one decide when to include a secondary character and how much of a role that character should play? I tend to follow the "needs to be there" rule. I include a secondary character when one is needed. If my character needs a confidante, there's a secondary character. If the book takes place on a ranch, I include at least a minimal number of ranch hands. If my hero or heroine is a loner, a dog or cat may be a secondary character. Perhaps a book calls for a messenger. Or a servant. Or...any other number of roles. To me, it all comes down to one question: does this character serve an important purpose? If they do, I include them. If not, they're gone.
And I try to make sure that the secondary characters get on and offstage quickly, never overshadowing the main characters. The one exception to that is when the secondary characters are part of a major subplot or have their own subplot.
Mind you, these are simply the rules that I try to apply to the use of secondary characters, but the beauty of writing is that there really are no hard and fast rules. All of them have been broken at one time, and all of them have been broken effectively by those who are masters of their craft. Each author must make his or her own choice regarding secondary character usage. Good luck making your choices. Enjoy the process.