A special word this time for the best friends, minions, and spear carriers who fill out your casts or populate the imaginary spaces of your novels. These are the valued ones who are held for ransom… or callously disposed of by villains.
Why should you worry, as a writer, about connecting with your secondary characters?
It all comes down to creating the best experiences for readers and audiences. While it is a mistake to have a secondary character who overshadow your protagonist (and probably your antagonist), if you don't know them well enough to allow them to credibly play their roles, your story will be diminished.
A wise old man or crone can point out the path the hero or heroine must take. The confidant becomes the proxy for readers anxious to know what's on the protagonist's mind. The princess must be saved. The sidekick must carry the message. The femme fatale must lure the main character into danger.
Secondary characters can turn the story. They can intensify the stakes. It is usually not the main characters, but they who state the theme . Secondary characters illustrate the existence of a larger world. They also help the writer, through techniques like comic relief, to manage the emotional pacing of the story.
As I did with protagonists and villains, I will go through each of the nine dimensions with the secondary characters, but not with all of them. That could be a series of articles in and of itself. I’ll just sample the list as I need to so I can make my points. The rest will be left to you.
So here's the list:
Investment – If you get too involved with your secondary characters, you'll burn a lot of writing time. That's your choice, but the danger is you’ll become too attached. It's easy to unintentionally shift the spotlight away from your main characters if you fill a notebook with interviews and observations on the heroine’s best friend.
You should, however, invest enough so your secondary character is slightly more vivid in your mind that might be appropriate. Everything in a story is seen “as through a glass darkly,” so a little exaggeration is warranted. But, when the waiter delivering a glass of water to your hero explodes off the page, it distorts your plot and sets up inappropriate reader expectations.
One big exception here is what you write in a series. If your next book will focus in on this secondary character – a very popular approach for sequels of romance novels — getting the reader interested is part of marketing your next book.
Communication – I like to explore secondary characters within the contexts of their roles — both their official tasks and their relationships with protagonists and antagonists. This means I often do very limited interviews with these characters. I explore how they themselves feel and think about these two roles.
Commonality – Here, I'm mostly interested in giving myself touch points. To avoid too closely identifying with these characters, that often means grabbing aspects of people I know casually. People I meet once or know through others work best because, in these cases, I will have noticed something that clicks with me, but I don't have the full picture. Roger Zelazny created a secondary character in one of the Amber books who was clearly himself. What resulted was an amusing and memorable scene, but it pulled me out of the story. So be careful about taking a star turn yourself.
Concern — For children in jeopardy, damsels in distress, and other characters who motivate the acceptance of difficult missions, character change, and sacrifice on the part of your protagonists, it is essential that you, as a writer, have as much concern for them as your main characters do. Too often, I find in movies and television shows that the "prizes" who motivate heroes and heroines didn't seem worth it. For me, it makes all the anxiety and action come off as over-the-top and foolish.
Tolerance – What I love about secondary characters is that the more fleeting they are, the more obnoxious and ridiculous they can be. Annoyance is a powerful spice, especially when readers can put down books and viewers can change the channel or pop out the DVD. But in small amounts, especially in longer works, they can create zesty moments.
Reliability – The traits of a secondary character are limited. Be very careful about making them variable. Still, it can be done. For instance, it's very effective to have a minor rival congratulate the main character once the objective is achieved. It helps to underline and amplify the success by showing that even an enemy recognizes the victory. But generally we depend upon secondary characters to provide, sounding boards, unchanging perspectives that respond in understandable ways to the actions, ideas, and comments of main characters.
Surprise/Mystery – See reliability above, with one additional idea: It is wonderful for your plot to be complicated, for obstacles to be made tougher, and for stakes to be raised because a friendly secondary character makes a mistake. Usually, though they may be helpful within their roles, they should not surprise the hero with something that makes life easier.
Mutual dependence – Yes, minions are disposable. But, you as a writer, should feel a little pain when they make their final departures. And it's even more true with characters who fill larger roles, but don't rise to the level of main characters. In every case, a secondary character should be there for a reason, and, as their creator, you can't be uncommitted. Be present, at least a little bit, even for the poor spear carriers.
Shared work/risk – While you can't let them take over, it can be good to give your secondary characters some latitude. Trust them (even if they are minions or femme fatales).
One more thing to think about. Casting is one of the most important factors in the success of a movie or television show. An important point of advice for scriptwriters, therefore, is to make sure that the roles that will make or break the production are written so that good actors will want to play the parts.
When you think about this in terms of either script or a novel, it means you as a writer are required to think beyond the plot value of most of your characters. No one wants to play device. Or read about a character who only serves a function. So don't shortchange your secondary characters because you're afraid they'll steal the show (or you don't think it's worth the bother).
Keep it interesting. Keep it fresh. Create stories that are bigger than the page or the screen.