Secondary Characters and Subplots
This post is the fourth in a series on subplots.
As you’re developing your secondary plot, you'll need to start thinking about who is going to carry it. Some subplots continue to feature, or may be told from, the POV of your main character. Other subplots may focus instead on a minor or secondary character, who guides the reader through this second storyline.
It’s tempting to spend all of your energy on developing a really rich main character while going light on secondary characters, but you should consider putting as much initial thought into your main character’s friends, family members, and enemies as you do with them.
(Besides, we all know that really great side-characters are everyone’s favourite in novels, anyway. Sure, we like Harry Potter, but Ron, Hermione, and Draco are the ones people name when you ask them who their fave is.)
The Hero of Their Own Story
Everybody is the protagonist of their own story, even fictional characters you’ve made up to support another protagonist. Secondary characters are fully fleshed out people too, who don’t just exist as props to be used in the main character’s story, even if the reader never sees it. In their own heads, they’re as interesting, varied, and deep as anyone else, so do them a favor and write them accordingly.
Develop your secondary characters with as much personality and detailed preferences as you would your main character. Have a good think about their goals, fears, and obstacles. Figure out how they take their coffee and why, or flesh out personality details such as how they’re like or unlike their star sign, what their favourite kind of music is, if they have any dialogue tics, and more.
A great example of fully-fleshed secondary characters can be found in Sailor Moon. While Usagi is the series protagonist, the other characters- Ami, Rei, Makoto, and Mina - have their own character traits, hobbies, preferences, and opinions. These traits are sometimes in direct conflict with Usagi’s desires and goals, which leads to either comical or critical impasses in the plot.
Use Character to Further Plot
The next step is figuring out how to weave these stories together so that the secondary character’s motivation aligns or helps along the main character’s motivations and goals. How can you use the secondary character’s motivations to impede the main character’s? How can their hobbies, preferences, and tastes either solve a complication, or create one?
For example, could a character’s nerdiness about artisanal gin [Ryan Reynolds, call me. -Ed.] solve a murder mystery set in a bar? Or, more interestingly, could it accidentally misdirect the detective?
Give them Silly Hats
Not every character that appears in your book needs the full D&D Character Page workup treatment, of course. Some named characters are there for one or two scenes and then are gone. These people don’t have to be as detailed as your main characters, secondary characters and antagonists, but the reader must be able to tell them apart. If the character is close to a main character, you can use that main character's emotions and the way they act (or react) around them, to give your secondary characters depth.
The easiest way to make a named or speaking secondary character memorable is to give them a one or two definable, memorable traits. Neil Gaiman calls this the Silly Hat. Obviously you’re not going to give them all actual silly hats, but choose something strong or unusual to help readers visualize and distinguish the characters from one another.
For example: “My wife introduced me to her receptionist, an off-beat woman named Esther with the biggest, greenest cat-eye glasses I’d ever seen in my life. I hated her the second she let loose a screeching laugh.”
In one sentence, we've established that Esther is non-conformist, wears unusual (and therefore memorable) glasses, and may be either socially unaware or downright rude. We can now reference one or more of these traits whenever she appears to remind the reader who Esther is, or we can give her new behavior that challenges the assumptions the reader has already made about her character.
Pick up the last fiction book you read and list the secondary characters you recall off the top of your head. Next to each character, write down what you remember about them. Why did these details stick in your head? Did you remember them by a behavior, rather than by their name? If you don't remember any of the secondary characters, take another look at the book and reread the sections where they appear. Are they described with generic language that makes it hard to remember who they were? Do they exist in the story as anything other than a prop for the main character's interaction?