>> Thursday, February 4, 2010
Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.
I love secondary characters. L-O-V-E them. I love them so much that 2/3 of my fairly completed novels are effectively ensemble pieces. Sure, I have "main" characters, but the interaction of the other characters are so integral to the whole that it's not about 1-2 people; it's about the team.
One reason I love them is that there are virtually no limits on the type and scope of side character you can include, from the relatively dastardly, to the absurd, to the profound, to the inane, to the... You want to play with a particular character but aren't sure how to center the story around them - make 'em a side character. They can be funny, silly, officious, curious, troublesome, protective, loyal, creative, clever, nitpicky. They can epitomize a group of people (stereotype) and make them come alive. They can personify key aspects of a time, place or social structure. They can do nothing more profound than make the story more entertaining - nothing wrong with that.
Side characters can add texture and flavor to an otherwise humdrum story or breathe life into a time and place without being a distraction. They are an excellent opportunity for exposition without making it seem contrived - Watson provided an opportunity for Holmes to elucidate his mental processes without awkwardness, for example. They can provide insight into the main characters just by their reactions/loyalty/disaffection for the main characters. Somewhat haughty and officious who treats your protagonist like a wayward child can let you know your main character isn't as concerned with "right and proper" as the side character before he's said a word. The dedication and loyalty of a capable and intelligent side character can provide insight that a bristly or grumpy main character has hidden depths worthy of merit long before they are otherwise visible.
Side characters can be foils for main characters or reinforcement for their character traits. They afford the writer an opportunity to reveal key aspects about a character by interacting with him or her. See, it's not enough that a character "be" in the writer's mind - the writer needs a way to demonstrate that character. The writer can just "say" what the character is supposed to be, but, let's face it, that's rarely as compelling as demonstrating those characteristics through word and deed. Interaction with side characters can bring those qualities front and center, can reveal warmth or softness or cleverness or other aspects of a character that wouldn't shine through without them. A side character of the less savory type can give your main character a chance to be witty, sarcastic or just argue better.
And they're fun. I frequently have fairly serious characters. Side characters are often what adds the humor and bring out the charm of my main characters.
They can also help the plot develop, provide traits and skills the hero (who shouldn't be perfect) might be lacking, provide a contrast and, if doing a series of novels, can be the focus of a later book. They can add depth to the story, providing history or color or humanity to a time that might seem short on it.
In movies, there's a whole host of "character actors" who have made a career about playing the people around the lead. Time and again, these are the most versatile actors out there and their characters are far more diverse than those lead actors play.
A fairly common characteristic among my favorite authors are books where the side characters are so charming, I frequently stop to giggle and say, "I love Beautiful" or "I love Edger" or the like. And, that's what I want people to do when they read my work.