Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Sidekicks and Best Friends and Moms, Oh My! : Creating Secondary Characters
Think of it: What would Sherlock Holmes be without Watson? Dorothy Gale without her curious trio? Harry without Hermione & Ron? Don Quixote without Sancho Panza? Hamlet without Horatio? Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of the secondary character. I think the term used in the film industry serves to clarify the raison d’etre for these characters – “supporting cast”. Because they support the hero, heroine and adversary in your story – in fact they support the story itself! In general there are two general questions to ask yourself when compiling THIS supporting cast: “What part do they play; what is their function in your story?” And then: “Who are they? Who can they be?” Like the chicken and the egg, the question of which aspect comes first will depend on the author. The role of the secondary character can be used to: add color, help establish aspects of the plot, help define and clarify the hero, heroine and villain for the reader and other characters, act as a catalyst for the action of the plot, and serve as a foil for the other protagonists. Particularly in romance, you need these secondary characters to help the hero and heroine toward their HEA. The sibling who reveals the heroine’s fear of men or the loyal housekeeper who never leaves the employ of the curmudgeonly Duke, thereby alerting the reader to the man’s inherent goodness. They can provoke the action: The BFF who is kidnapped, propelling the heroine into the fray to rescue her, providing GMC. The orphaned child destined for death, who has no savior – unless the hero takes action. Likewise the adversary can be aided by these characters. The minion who is missing a hand as a result of the villain’s vengeful nature lets the reader in on the fact that the villain is not just a danger to his enemies. Often the secondary characters are used to act as: sounding boards, confessors, psychologists or as mentors or mirrors. They enable the primary characters perhaps to see their way in a quandary, or to make the right decision, or they help them to learn and grow into a given situation. These supporting cast members play the role of foil for a primary character. The dissolute best friend whose presence highlights the hero’s more sober lifestyle. The flight BFF who points up the heroine’s savvy. Or the quailing bad guy who helps to illuminate the real power of the evil villain. Secondary characters also play a general role, providing color and diverse voices to your story. They help establish the world. The variety of these characters, both their physical selves and their personalities, can add a wealth of layers to any story. You can assign these roles to a variety of secondary characters. It will depend on your story’s setting, and your plot. There may be one secondary character who plays all the roles. Or a veritable slew. Another fun aspect of secondary characters is the wide diversity of type that you are able to employ in creating them. The constraints you have for the hero, heroine and villain are abandoned in favor of all manner of characteristics. For example, your hero is probably not the type to be a circus nut, who ran off to clown school and is known to drive everyone crazy by juggling everything in their path, including small dogs and valuable vases. But the best buddy can! Your villain would not be believable if he is an inept bungler. But the villain’s clumsy helper can add a great element of humor suspense to the story. Will he carry out the villain’s orders? Or blow the whole nefarious scheme? These supporting members of your story can run the gamut from good, bad, lovely or grotesque. Their identities and relationships can be whatever you want or need them to be. As with an adversary, a secondary “character” might also be a non-humanoid entity. A perfect storm that tests the hero’s mettle as he races to save the heroine from the evil-doer’s clutches. A dog like Toto that sets the action of The Wizard of Oz in motion, offers companionship and actually serves as one of Dorothy’s rescuers. Or Mount Doom – the destination of all of the band in Lord of the Rings, which looms ominously throughout the books. There are some of the basics of a supporting cast. One, two, or as many as you need to effectively produce your story. There can be a sense of an ensemble among them, or it can be a solitary individual at the hero and heroine’s sides. They are vital to the book, but keep in mind that they can’t run away with your story. If your secondary characters are clamoring for the spotlight, promise them their own tale – in the sequel! If you have trouble determining what your secondary characters should be doing in your story, and how you can create them, pick out a favorite book, or watch a favorite movie, and figure out who these secondary characters are – not to be confused with the tertiary characters and the extras. Identify them, and then identify what role(s) they play in the story. Who are YOUR favorite secondary characters? What interesting ways have you seen the secondary characters used in a story? How do you approach the creation of these integral characters? Please share!