I adore secondary characters. In books, films and television, they play such an important role. So what’s the trick to creating successful secondary characters? I think it’s knowing how to push the envelope, but not push it too far.
Many readers have told me they love Aunt Margaret in my first book, The Man for Maggie. The interesting thing to me is that Aunt Margaret doesn’t really exist. She’s either a ghost or she’s Maggie’s conscience, and no one, not even me, has been able to figure out which. I do know there was no conscious effort on my part to create Aunt Margaret but when she appeared, she was essential to the story.
So how do we write significant secondary characters? Again, I look to the people who do it so well—scriptwriters.
In Gilmore Girls, Lorelei and Rory are sympathetic characters we can relate to. Luke is as steady as they come. Rory’s friend Lane is the girl next door. Then we have Paris, Kirk, Babette. Oh my. Sally Struthers as Babette. Wasn’t she wonderful? Many of the secondary characters in this show were delightfully over the top and that worked because they fit the story and made it richer.
Look at Men in Trees. Honestly, I can’t say enough wonderful things about this show’s outstanding writing. Of course we relate to Marin and Jack as the main characters, yet the cast of secondary characters is extensive and brilliantly woven into Marin’s and Jack’s story arcs. Patrick and his family mosaic. NYC editor Jane and Elmo plow guy Sam. The bar patrons. The hairdresser. The minister. The pregnant ex-girlfriend. The way-too-attractive guy who shows up to renovate Marin’s house. The show wouldn’t be complete and Jack and Marin’s story wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and without all those endearingly offbeat people.
One of my favorite secondary characters of all time is Dr. Larry Fleinhardt on NUMB3RS. Brilliant physicist. Homeless and living in his car. Astronaut. Not your average resume, to be sure!
So what have I learned? Secondary characters are integral to a story. To be effective, they should be as three-dimensional as the story’s hero and heroine. They can’t be mentioned in passing. They can’t be glossed over. They should be fleshed out and they can even have a story arc of their own, no matter how small that arc might be.
Secondary characters can be much quirkier than our heroes and heroines because the oddball provides such an excellent foil, making the main character appear normal by comparison :)
An easy thing to write? Maybe, maybe not, but do stay tuned. I’ll explore this some more throughout this TV season.
Meanwhile, I’d love to know who your favorite secondary characters are, and why.