I finally have the first draft of my new novel in. Hurray! Now I can get back to regular blogging. This week I’m discussing a story’s supporting cast with friend and writing mentor Sydney Smith.
When I told my agent that I was writing a sweeping historical saga, the first thing she did after asking about my main characters, was to ask about my secondary characters and subplots. We all lead lives surrounded by family, friends, mentors, bosses, competitors and even enemies. Main characters are no different. I give my top-level secondary players their own character arcs – ongoing personal struggles that form sub-plots running alongside the major one, adding complexity and depth.
My rule for these secondary character arcs is that they must support and supplement the main action. Challenging the protagonist for example, or getting them into trouble. Helping them learn lessons or see things from different points of view. Their arcs must conclude before or at the same time as the main plot.
A good example can be found In Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The main plot concerns U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Yossarian’s attempt to avoid dying in World War II. A subplot develops around mess hall officer Milo Minderbinder’s rise as the king of a black-market food selling operation. It provides countless connections and reflections on the main plot.
Gawd, it’s been decades since I read Catch-22. I don’t recall Minderbinder at all, though I remember Major Major because of his unfortunate name and his role as victim and loser extraordinaire. He looked like Henry Fonda, I recall.
Yes, I agree with all that you say about secondary characters. I would add only that a secondary character must want something, have a goal they pursue, a problem they work on. That gives shape and direction to their character arc. That goal must interfere in some way with that of a main character. The intersection points are places where the conflict detonates into action.
I find that new writers do everything possible to limit their secondary characters. If they build up those characters into vital players in the narrative, the writer’s job suddenly becomes more complicated. Writing a novel is hard work. But in fact, while getting your secondary characters to add vitality to the story increases your work – you have to think about them and how they affect the main action – it also fills in that blankness that surrounds these characters. All new writers know what it feels like to have a character but have no idea what they should say or do. The writer gives them things to say, actions to perform, but it’s unsatisfying. A puzzle surrounds the secondary character, a puzzle that is solved when you give them a problem to solve in pursuit of a goal. Suddenly, the character has direction and meaning in the story. Suddenly, the writer feels energised in their relationship with that character. It’s like a character who was mute opens their mouth and speaks.
Yes, characters need to clash. Your protagonist is desperate for a baby? Give her best friend an unwanted pregnancy. Protagonist wants to breed dingoes? Have her neighbour breed sheep. Protagonist policewoman has been raped? Have her boss assign her to the sexual assault squad. Protagonist is scared of water? Have her mother need rescuing from a flood. It’s easy when you get the hang of it.
Some other tips. Give your supporting character quirks, to make them instantly recognizable. Maybe they’re the witty one, or the forgetful one, or the funny side-kick. Maybe they’re a taxi driver who always gets lost.
Know their back story. Help readers understand the relevance of the supporting character by providing a few details about their life. This ties in with giving them their own character arc.
And most important of all, know what their function is in relation to your main character. Are they friend or foe? Are they a mirror or foil to the main character, showing contrasting choices and behaviours. Are they a false ally—seeming to help the main character while actually pursuing their own agenda? Understand this function before you start writing them.
I go with everything you say, Jenny, except the last bit. The imagination needs time to brew on characters and story. I find in the work of my students that a character might appear in draft after draft but their purpose in the story is unclear. I never advise a writer to get rid of a character who doesn’t appear to have a purpose in the story, or advise them to foist a purpose onto that character. I work closely with the writer’s imagination and trust it the way I trust my own – even when the student doesn’t! Given time, the imagination will work out what this character is doing in the story. If the character is obstinate in maintaining a foothold despite their apparent lack of purpose, it will turn out that they have a vital function in the story, one that spins the story into the stratosphere. I love it when that happens.