So what purpose do secondary characters (any characters who are not the main character, love interest, or antagonist) actually serve (besides adding to your word count)? Plenty!
Comedic relief: Especially in a serious novel, or heck, in a funny novel too, comedy is always important. Think Harry Potter; Ron had his share of light moments, Fred and George definitely did too. When Harry was going on an angsty rampage, Ron, the twins, even Luna and Neville (Crookshanks, Pigwidgeon, you get the point) gave us moments of light-hearted respite. But don't think that the funny character is only a funny character--Ron had character archs same as Harry. Comedy characters can't just jump into your scene whenever you need a punch line. They serve purpose, texture, occasional wisdom, plot device. You name it, a comedy character can deliver it. If your ms is too dry or imbued with too many characters, consider rolling several characters into one--the right one can provide you everything the main character can't alone.
Romantic Subplot: I'm thinking specifically of Paranormal Romance here, but you can apply to many genres. These are the characters that might appear in several books in your series. They might have a very large role much later on, but again they provide texture, occasional relief from the main story line, but they always intersect with the main plot and must serve at some point as critical to moving the story forward. JR Ward Black Dagger Brotherhood fans know exactly what I'm talking about. John Matthew shows up early in the series and his importance pulls him through many books until he gets his own book. Quinn and Baylock also demonstrate this principle; vital to the emotional grid of the Brotherhood, key players in the plot, show up early and appear in each book in the series. As far as I know, this couple won't get their own book, but we know them as intimately as any Ward characters.
The Snitch: No, not an inanimate flying object. We already discussed Harry Potter. I'm calling it the snitch, because this character might be confused, unintentionally hurt, might even betray the main character. This character goes through their own transformation, perhaps redemption from the main character, or from the self. I'm obsessed with the TV show Suits, so I'm going with Louis Litt for the snitch. Louis fluctuates from friend to enemy depending on the plot and situation. He is a very sympathetic character; he only wants to be valued by his peers, which anyone can identify with, so when he betrays Harvey or Jessica, we don't hate him. Contrare, I want to pat his head and feed him ice cream. The Snitch is going to be invaluable to your plot, going as far as being a major plot point and perhaps turning around to aid the main character in the conclusion.
The Mentor: Obi Wan anybody? This might be one of the most important characters in your story. Perhaps even more important than your main character because, what else does a mentor do, he has shaped your main character into the person they are or become in the story. The key to a mentor character though, is to remember that they are fallible, destructable, mortal, prone to the same mistakes and falls as any real person. And, at some point, they have to step aside (die, in Obi Wan's case) to allow the hero to fulfill his hero quest. Ooo, that sounded important, didn't it? Well, it is! But that's plot, and another discussion for another day. Or read The Writers Journey, anything by Joseph Campell, and/or screenwriting books. Many of you may not have read it yet (I haven't reviewed it yet) but Origin by Jessica Khoury has many mentor type characters. Since the others double as many roles (including Antagonist), the newest member in the community, Aunt Harriet teaches Pia things she was always forbidden, even helps her break rules and expand her perfect brain beyond the limits she was taught.
Aunt Harriet might also be considered a catalyst--her arrival changes Pia, and thus the plot. As I hope you've figured out by now, secondary characters can double as plot points. Without them, you have no plot, or at least, a much less interesting one. A very interesting conversation of plot vs character driven stories will be reserved for another day. But bicker amongst yourselves.
It isn't necessary to have all these elements to make a good story. And having all these elements does not guarentee a good story either. It's how you use them that's important. In many novels, you might not have a mentor, or the mentor might be implied. Fantasy definitely has more use of a mentor than say YA contemporary. For a YA character, their mentor character is probably going to be their parents. And if they're driving, on the cusp of adulthood, their parents are absent, the mentor character is definitely implied and out of the character's way. That's the idea of YA, afterall, characters who are not equipped with all the tools are thrust into life to fend for themselves, and you can hardly do that with your mother right there fixing your mistakes.
Remember, secondary characters are different from background (or incidental) characters. Secondary characters serve your plot, impact the emotional well being of your main character. Background characters might also provide comedic relief and occasionally vital information, they might be quirky and memorable, but if you take them from the story, the plot and main characters should be fairly unchanged (albeit a little less colorful). In The Hunger Games, these are the character Katniss comes into contact with every day in District 13, or meets breifly at the Capitol, or the contestants who aren't given names. Pay attention though to how much weight these characters are actually given; they can be the difference between blah world building and a spectacular world every one wants to read.
Homework! Next time you watch a movie or even a TV show (comedies are fantastic for this--I just watched Bridesmaids and had to eat a lot of popcorn to keep from geeking to my friends about the character archetypes and plot devices) see how many secondary characters you can spot and how each role is vital to the plot.
|My favorite secondary character of the movie|