Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Second Banana

If the main character is the heart of a story, I like to think of the secondary characters as the liver, spleen and kidneys. Sure, maybe you can lose a kidney and you'll be OK, but life sure would be a lot harder without these nifty organs hanging around. Why? Because they DO something all on their own, something completely independent of the heart.

That's one of the lessons I took away from my recent editing experience. We spent, to me, a surprising amount of time dealing with secondary characters. Not just in relation to the main character, but in relation to themselves. What did my secondary characters learn? What was their character arc? Did they have something to teach the main character, or something to learn from the main character? How do their stories support the theme?

Oftentimes, I see "stock" secondary characters. The needy spouse. The sarcastic best friend. The sadistic sidekick. This is OK, but I don't think it's enough if you want to write a really great book. It's not enough to have a character pop in simply to make a point about your main character, or just to give your main character an excuse to monologue or rage or whatever. 

Because, c'mon, life just doesn't work like that. My own life is filled with "secondary characters," but the truth is, I'm a secondary character in THEIR lives. The only real one-sided conversations happen when one of the sides is being paid to shut up and listen, reflect, or emote (I'm thinking of psychiatrists and hookers, naturally).

So it goes with secondaries. They are living, breathing, actual people who are in my story because they, too, are on a journey. And even if their journey is ... well, secondary, it is important nonetheless, because I will not have a complete story unless the reader can feel the deeper currents at work. Unless the reader can sense that once these people walk off the page, they will walk into their own stories, this time as the star.

Easier said than done, right? Yep, at least for me. And that's why I'm in mad love with the Find function. Here I am, at the end of this story, and I'm reading for secondaries. So what I do is plug the character's name into Find and go through the book from the beginning, reading the entire book told only through their scenes, from their perspective. And along the way, I adjust, I delete and add, and explain, and eventually, if all goes well, I end up with a complete portrait of an important person -- not just a collection of quirks who happens to be convenient to my main character. 


Mark Terry said...

And everybody is the hero of their own story.

I really like the idea of asking yourself what great stories your secondary characters would star in. I can see where it might not work--would we really want to read a full-fledged story with Hermione Granger or Ron Weasley as the main character? I don't know. Depend on the story, I suppose.

Robert Crais has done a nice job with a novel featuring sidekick Joe Pike and I'd be glad to read more of them. Robert B. Parker never went off on a Hawk novel, although he's had a book or two that focused more on Hawk. I suspect Hawk would lose a lot of his mystique if you peeled back the layers, but who knows?

LurkerMonkey said...

"Would we really want to read a full-fledged story with Hermione Granger or Ron Weasley as the main character?"

Me? Not so much. But now that you mention it, this is one of the things fan-fic is all about. They write up main stories for secondary characters. I understand there's a whole universe of fan-fic storie about Draco Malfoy.

For me, the important thing is to respect my secondaries AS IF they would warrant a whole novel, even if I'll never actually write it.

Mark Terry said...

Yeah, I know--on the other hand, I'm convinced there's a whole freakin' book or series of books about a young Dumbledore just waiting to be written. Really! C'mon, he's most famous for a duel, dragon blood...

spyscribbler said...

Oooh! I love that technique! Putting that in the tool chest.

I'm just finishing book 4 and starting book 5 in a series that was supposed to be maybe three books long. I keep falling in love with my secondaries! The girl I'm about to write is SO special and sweet, I just have to do her book, too. She was just a gem in book 4, with a real heart of gold. I write my own fan fiction, LOL!

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Jon:
I think, in my own wip (Eden's Poison) of her godfather, the one dying of cancer. They have a single scene together, but I do think it somehow conveys this LIFE. I feel like this blog entry is such an accurate portrayal of how people are in our lives. A single conversation in my real life with my father, is now imbued somehow with this whole LIFE between us . . . he's a secondary character, but the fact that I cook for him now, or wait on him because he is blind, is part of a fabric of a much larger story. Of devotion, pain, heartbreak, anger, frustration, duty . . . somehow it's making sure you pour that into scenes by what you choose to show.


LurkerMonkey said...


I bet that's the best kind of fan fiction ...

LurkerMonkey said...


Yes! For me, I can only strike that note properly if I shift my mindset ... I would have to revisit that scene from the godfather's POV, to think like him, to slip into his character. And then it becomes more ... real.