When I volunteered to write about the role of secondary characters in my novels, I anticipated to do an exploration of just that…the “roles” of secondary characters. As I sit down to write this, though, I realize I need to go deeper. My secondary characters take a bit of explanation. Their ROLES might be secondary but the characters definitely are not “back-seat passengers.”
Secondary characters do have roles. They often serve as mentors or foils for the main characters. Sometimes, secondary characters fill the villain role. Secondary characters introduce conflict and help guide the protagonist to his/her arc. When I first began writing, I had only a basic understanding of that and my first poorly crafted manuscript of CHOICES had cardboard characters filling those roles and more than a few characters that didn’t fill much of a role at all. Even my main characters were shallow (but that’s a whole different story).
CHOICES began as a love-triangle story set into Fort Randall, Dakota Territory with nineteenth century military culture adding texture. Miriam was an officer’s daughter, Robert was the officer of her dreams, and Jake was a lowly private who caught her attention and forced decisions that changed her life. Into the mix, I threw an overbearing mother, a cute little sister, and a laundress. Those secondary characters were to create conflict and introduce Miriam to a side of life she’d never seen. That first manuscript was a dismal failure, in part because none of those roles were filled by characters with any depth.
The story went through several versions as I learned my craft and reshaped not only Miriam and Jake (heroine and hero) but all the supporting cast. Once I learned that ALL the characters needed depth and motivation, the novel developed beyond just a collection of characters in various roles.
I first learned that villains are not just bad-guys. They are fully shaped characters who have goals that are in conflict with the goals of the protagonist(s) and THAT drives the conflict through the entire book. I shifted Robert into a villain looking to advance his career with an advantageous marriage. And I put Miriam’s mother into a second villain role, influenced by a laudanum addiction and focused on forcing her own failed goals onto Miriam. This gave the story a new layer of complexity and opened a lot more conflict for Miriam and Jake. Once I realized the depth this created, I discovered I could layer in a subplot focused on the failed relationship between Miriam’s parents. Miriam’s father grew from almost a non-character to someone who played a significant role in Miriam’s arc. That new subplot allowed me to bring in a delightful new character, Eulalie.
Robert became a much deeper villain once I gave him his own goals. Rather than being just the flirtatious spark and eventual odd-man-out, those goals gave him much stronger reasons for pursuing Miriam and set up more believable conflict with both Miriam and Jake. It also sharpened the role of army culture and separation of officers and enlisted personnel, making that culture almost a character onto itself. And, making Robert a true villain also supplied the conflict necessary to keep Miriam from just drifting through life.
My mentor cast of Carrie, Jake’s laundress sister, and Miriam’s little sister Franny grew as well. Each served as a mentor, guiding Jake and Miriam to see things differently and make decisions they would otherwise have resisted. In giving Carrie and Franny their own goals, I was able to weave them into the story with an active subplot of her own for Carrie and larger roles for Franny in the parental subplot. Eulalie proved useful as a mentor as well, helping Miriam in her rebellion against cultural expectations and interpreting subplot conflicts for her where she might otherwise not understand.
CHOICES developed further with every rewrite I did during those years of learning my craft and that lesson of letting my secondary characters out of their “roles” to become fleshed-out cast members with their own unique stories changed my writing forever.
Secondary? Maybe by definition but never again passive ride-along characters.