As a writer, you send your main character out the door, down the path, and into the world of your story. But wait? Can they succeed if they go it alone? Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam as The Lord of the Rings fans know all too well. Your story needs someone to join the hero on his/her journey. That’s where secondary characters get their chance to shine.
What/Who Are They?
Secondary characters play a significant role in the plot of the story, but it does not revolve around them. They show up, do what they were created to do, and then step aside to let the main character (MC) carry on. They will get a chance to grab the readers’ attention for a bit, and their role for that period of time may be a significant one, but the writer needs to remember that the MC is the one that needs to carry the plot along.
Who are they? Secondary characters can be anything the writer wants them to be as long as they fill their intended role. They don’t even have to be human. I’ve had cats, a horse, and even a boat as secondary characters. A secondary character can be a tree, a castle, or even an ocean. Dorothy’s little dog Toto in The Wizard of Oz is a great example of a secondary character. He’s her companion, brings help when she needs it, and shows Dorothy (and the others) the redeeming qualities of bravery, faithfulness, and determination. He gets his time in the spotlight, but then stays at her heels as she carries the story forward (with the help of her friends–also secondary characters).
At the risk of having a secondary character take over the story, one might be tempted to do away with them altogether. In rare instances it might be successful, but chances are your story is going to need more than one or two characters to make it a tale worth reading. Secondary characters help populate and embellish the world of your story. Human or not, they bring an added dimension to what your MC is experiencing or trying to work through. They can be helpful … or not. No one said secondary characters have to be good. Look back at The Wizard of Oz for a moment. The wicked witch of the west wasn’t considered a “good” character, but she had an important part to play in the story. She brought loads of emotional tension to numerous scenes, but she also helped Dorothy find the strength and bravery to confront her in order to get back home.
How to Choose
Here are some ideas that might help. Think about the plot of your story. Where is it going and who/what might be needed along way? There should be obstacles and challenges, so find secondary characters who can help and hinder the ultimate goal of your MC. Some secondary characters may show up and leave; others may be in it for the long haul. Some will be more important than others in that they may have a greater role to play in your story, but none of them should ever replace the MC. Read your favorite stories and watch movies/TV programs to see how secondary characters are used and what roles they play. Creating and using secondary characters is great fun. They can be endearing and quirky or dark and evil. Human or not. They can even be a bit irresponsible because the burden of carrying the plot of the story rests with the MC. But it’s probably a good idea not to tell them that.