Sunday, September 12, 2010

Secondary Characters And How To Use Them

I've had a hectic week.  On Labor Day (Monday, September 6), my mother fell and broke her hip.  At that time she was preparing for knee replacement surgery.  Left hip and right knee, which compounded her recovery.  I feel as if I've been spending all my time either at the hospital or in my car going to and from.  They moved her to a rehab facility yesterday, but no prognosis on how long she'll be there.  So, to make a long story short [I know, I'm too late on that count :) ], this week's blog is one I originally posted a little over a year and a half ago as a guest blogger elsewhere.  For those who may recognize it, I hope you enjoy it a second time.  For those who don't recognize it, I hope you enjoy it for the first time. :)

Here's the repost of my blog about secondary characters:

While trying to decide on a topic for today's blog, I was torn between a writing type topic or something of a more general nature. The decision came to me while watching a couple of movies last night. One of them was Murder On The Orient Express with its all star cast where almost everyone in the movie was a major character. It occurred to me that there were very few characters other than the many primary ones. So I started thinking about secondary characters and how they can be used to prod, shove and push the main characters into and along the necessary path for the story line.

So, let's talk a bit about secondary characters.

When I say secondary characters, I'm not referring to the minor characters that decorate a scene and maybe have a couple of lines of dialogue. I'm talking about the characters who have a prominent place in your story but are not your main characters. These are the characters you can use to maneuver your main characters into and along the path toward achieving the story goal. They are a key factor in moving your story along and determining what direction it takes.

In developing these characters you need to decide what you want them to accomplish and how you want them to relate to and interact with your main characters in addition to each other in order to move your story line along to its conclusion. Let's take a look at how a set of secondary characters can be used to move a story line in a specific direction. Remember, it's not who they are, it's what they do and how they relate to the main characters and how the main characters respond to them.

Example: You have a story about a teenager who is the leader of a gang. He has been stealing cars for some mobsters. You have two ways you can go with your main character of the teenage gang leader, in other words, two directions your story line can take and you must choose one of them.

1) He wants to leave the gang and make something of his life

2) He runs his gang with a iron hand and threatens anyone who wants out.

With the first scenario, your choice of secondary characters who will influence the story line can be his girl friend, his little brother, and one of his teachers. That tells you who they are, but doesn't tell you how they move the story. His girl friend fears for his safety and finally gives him the ultimatum of leave the gang or she's leaving him. His little brother idolizes him and wants to be just like him, but he doesn't want his little brother to make the same mistakes he did. His teacher is mentoring him by helping him with his studies and finding him an after school job.

With the second scenario, your choice of secondary characters can be his girl friend, a rival gang leader, and his contact with the mobsters who pay him for the stolen cars. Again, that tells you who they are but not what they do to move the story in a specific direction. His girl friend demands more and more in the way of material things so he needs the money from stealing cars to keep her happy. The rival gang leader is trying to take over his stolen car business so he needs to watch his back to protect his own interests. The mobster gives him access to the easy money he needs to keep his girl friend happy and the promise of being able to move into their organization and advance in the criminal world.

Each scenario has the same secondary character of the girl friend, but her function is different in the two scenarios so that the character helps move the two story lines in different directions.

One of the great things about secondary characters is that you can make them as outrageous, unconventional and over-the-top as you want. You don't have the same parameters and cautions with secondary characters as you do with your main characters. The primary thing you need to be careful with is not making them more interesting than your main characters so that they don't steal the show and shove your main characters into the background.

So, I'd like to hear from you. Any comments about developing and using secondary characters in your writing? Or any television shows, movies, or books where the secondary characters stood out in your mind with the way they were able to guide the story line?


Donna L Bolk said...

Hi Samantha,
This is a first time read of this article for me.It's an informative and interesting read.
I like to think my secondary characters are as interesting as my main characters, and they help to move my stories forward. In Package Deal, one of my secondary characters Abby, is a retired lady wrestler, who now owns a flower shop. She's never too far away to give the hero, what she sees as much need advise in the art of winning over the heroine's children.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Great post. When each main character pops into my head, he and she seem to come with his and her own entourage. I can't explain it other than that. Yes, they are important, they move the story along, they are not just ciphers.

Samantha Gentry said...

Donna: I like that concept of a retired lady wrestler who now owns a flower shop. Great background for a character.

Samantha Gentry said...

Julia: That's great that your main characters "arrive" with their secondary characters already attached. Makes it much easier to get your cast of characters assembled.

Cheryl said...

Hi Samantha,

So very sorry to hear about your mother falling and the surgeries, etc. I know how tiring all that can be--just sitting in the hospital is exhausting, and the driving back and forth. Hope she gets through the rehab with flying colors.

I love secondary characters! I always use the example of Melanie in Gone With the Wind. Actually, Melanie was the one who drove the story along in many ways, just by being her. The way she always had faith in Scarlett, refusing to see the 'bad' side of her that others were so quick to jump to when they thought of her. Melanie was the one who truly understood Scarlett, and genuinely loved her, even when the nasty rumors started about Scarlett and Ashley. If Melanie was not present in the story, it would have been a completely different story, one not so nearly compelling, in my view.

When I wrote Fire Eyes, I had a ton of secondary characters in the marshals. Since that book was published, I've had many people ask me about a sequel to it involving Lily, the little girl who was a touch clairvoyant. I'm sure kicking around some ideas. LOL

Great post, and I hope things settle down for you some, Samantha.


Mona Risk said...

Hi Samantha, I am sorry about your Mom. It must be very hard on both of you. I am taking care of my Mom and get often depressed. I hope she gets better soon.

My secondary characters often add humor or tears to a scene. They are outspoken, direct and give us insight into the backstory (mothers, butlers) they share confidence (friends, colleagues) or add to the conflict (children).

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

Sorry to hear about your mother. We take care of my husband's 98 year old grandmother, making sure she eats and takes her pills. There's constant running back and forth all day long. It can be a bit trying at times. I wish your and your mother well.

I enjoyed your post. I believe the secondary characters are important to the plot and do help move the story along. They can be the best friend, the brother or the comic relief. It all works.

I never thought about writing a series until recently. Some of those secondary characters are finally going to have the spotlight.

Samantha Gentry said...

Hi, Cheryl: Thanks, my mother seems to be doing better. She's eating more which is good.

Excellent observation on Melanie. The Scarlet character was the star, but so much of what Scarlet did centered around her reactions to Melanie.

Samantha Gentry said...

Hi, Mona. Thanks for the good wishes for my mother.

Yes, a lot of necessary information comes from secondary characters. Backstory, things about the main characters that they can't/won't reveal about themselves that a secondary can convey. You can possibly get by with maybe only one secondary in a short story, but longer manuscripts have more complexity and need more secondary characters, each providing information and pushing/proding the main characters from diferent perspectives.

Samantha Gentry said...

Karen: Yes, the constant running back and forth is tiring. My house, to my mother's house, to the rehab hospital (which fortunately is in a direct line between my house and my mother's house).

Yes, a series is such a good way to pay homage to those secondary characters that you really like. Rather than allow that "special" secondary to become too much center stage and over shadow your main character, you can spin that character off as the main character of another book.

biancaswan20 said...

Sorry to hear about your mom. The info on secondary characters started me thinking about mine.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Sorry to learn of your mom's problems. I love secondary characters. They can do things heroes and heroines aren't allowed. An author can also get in somne quirky characters to help or hinder the h/h. A movie that came to mind reading your post is "Runaway Bride."

Samantha Gentry said...

Biance: Thanks. That's good, thinking about your secondary characters. There's so much you can do with them and so much they can do for your story.

Samantha Gentry said...

Caroline. Thanks. Yes, secondary characters can be a lot of fun to work with, especially if your story allows really quirky secondaries. As you said, they can do all kind of things your main characters can't get away with. Strong secondary characters that I think overshadowed the main characters was on the TV show Will And Grace. I found the Jack and (drat, just forgot her name...Nancy?) characters to be more interesting than either Will or Grace, almost to the point of stealing every scene they were in.

Janice said...

I'm sorry to hear about your mom. How awful for her, poor dear. You must be tired from spending time going back and forth to the hospital to see her, but I bet she really looks forward to your visits.

I dearly love writing secondary characters. They pop into my head completely formed with less effort then the lead characters and say the most outrageous things, lol.

The show that comes to mind where a secondary character took over is Family Matters, when Steve Urkle walked into the scene and said with a whine to his voice, "Did I do that?"


Samantha Gentry said...

Janice: Thanks.

Family're so right. Excellent example of a secondary character over shadowing the main characters. The Steve Urkle character was scheduled for one episode only, but he literally took over to the point where he became the central character of the series for several years.

Paris said...

I know I'm in trouble with my secondary characters when I start enjoying their development more than I'm enjoying the rest of the story. I have to step back and evaluate what's going on and figure out why I'm giving them all of the good lines:-)

So sorry to hear about your mom. Hope everything gets better soon!

Samantha Gentry said...

Paris: Thanks.

Yes, when you find your secondary characters more interesting than your main ones, it's definitely time to step back and rethink it. And maybe the thought is to give them their own story. :)