Friday, September 27, 2013

Don't Short Change Your Secondary Characters

Secondary characters should not the focus of your story, but they make the difference between a great novel and a ho hum one. Shakespeare knew this when he gave us great secondary characters like Bottom in a Midsummer Night's Dream. Bottom isn't the focus of the story, but his antics are a welcome relief from the tension between Oberon and Titania.

Secondary characters can add comic relief, or give background color. They buy the reader into your story because they make it real. Major characters even the great tragic heroes don't live in a vacuum. Hamlet needed Polonius.

Sometimes writing a character driven piece, the author can forget that the protagonist isn't the only character in the world. I recently reviewed a book, Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield. The writing is good, but the plot is thin, and the major character fills the story to the exclusion of everyone else. William, the major character is a self-centered workaholic. That's fine, but the other characters were flat. They made their appearances, spoke their required lines and moved off stage. I felt the lack of more complex characters made the story shallow. I wanted at least one other character to be other than a foil for William.

On the other hand, I'm reading Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile. This book is also a character study. There's more plot, but the real difference is the secondary characters. Charlotte, the main character has a family full of people with individual traits that help to show us the environment in a small southern town. Although you follow the main character, it's always fun when one of the secondary characters like Miss Honey, Charlotte's very determined grandmother, tries to take control of the action.

I'm not trying to encourage you to let the secondary characters take over, but making them real people with identifiable traits lends fulness to your story. Also, readers can become attached to secondary characters. One way to keep them reading is to give glimpses of their favorite characters.

Make your secondary characters come alive. They can make the difference between an unforgettable novel and one your reader puts down before it's half finished.  

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