Recently I critiqued a manuscript featuring a unique secondary character. He’d appear in all his quirky and magical glory, talk to the main character and disappear. As much as I loved him, I was baffled. Why he was in the story?
Nothing he said or did connected to the main character’s journey to achieve her heart’s desire. So what was the point of their curious interactions?
In a tightly crafted story, each character has a job to do. The main character pursues a deeply held desire, setting the story in motion and establishing what’s at stake.
As the main character works towards their goal, they are surrounded by friends and family, strangers and rivals. Naturally, we want to flesh out our character’s world and populate it with interesting characters.
But secondary characters don’t exist to be interesting or quirky. Their role must go beyond showing that our main character has a family or friends, adding color or providing entertaining dialogue.
The “screen time” we give a secondary character should derive from the role that character plays in the protagonist’s journey to achieve their heart’s desire.
When the protagonist works to get what he or she wants, it will either be supported by, be kept secret from, or be undermined by the secondary characters.
Even those who love the main character may oppose what they want. A parent may loathe the person that the protagonist wants to date. Or a best friend may have an unspoken crush on the same guy the protagonist is crushing on. Or a sibling may decide to get revenge by undermining the protagonist in their quest.
To make sure our secondary characters earn their time on stage, we can give them specific roles to play linked to the central drama. Their job titles might include:
Whether you’re outlining, writing or revising your manuscript, take a few minutes to imagine what role(s) each secondary character will take in the drama. Once your characters have job titles, you may want to review their scenes and reconsider if their actions and comments work to fulfill their job descriptions. Slackers should be cut, and high performers might earn more screen time. Each one should earn the right to be on stage.