One of the most common issues with supporting characters occurs when the writer simply forgets to include them. This means that the main character spends a lot of time wandering around alone. Setting up your MC a few friends, some family, or even just a rival who won’t bug off can give your character much needed outlet.
What Secondary Characters Do for Your Story:
- Provide an alternative to internal monologues
- An opportunity for interesting dialogue
- More sources of tension, conflict
- Character development
- More opportunities to build a balanced cast
Secondary characters are also a good way of keeping things fresh and changing up the dynamic of the core characters if you have a group of main characters. They can help and hinder your characters as equal measure, without requiring quite as much development as the MCs.
Two Common, Genre-Specific Instances of Missing Secondary Characters:
I’ve seen these two come up enough that I feel the need to expressly call them out. They’re both easy to do without realizing what’s happened, and generally require quite a bit of rewriting to fix.
YA Free-Range Children
This happens when your YA novel has no adults, and the teens do not live in a magical adult-free land. Everyone is an only child and if they aren’t an orphan, their parents never enter the picture. If the characters ever make it in to class, we do not meet their teachers. This raises three problems. First, the lack of adults generally makes the world seem incomplete, if not outright uncanny. Second, it tends to open up gaping plot holes should anyone stop to ask “Why aren’t their parents stepping in?” Third it limits your opportunities. Adult characters can provide much needed support just as easily as they can become a major roadblock.
The Two Person Love Story
All quips about fiction needing more poly couples aside, it is incredibly difficult to sustain a love story with only two characters. Alice falls for Lucy. Lucy falls for Alice. They live happily ever after. That isn’t much of a story; it’s a couple hanging out with each other. Other people provide them with a chance to talk out their feelings, so we know what they’re thinking without long blocks of internal monologue. They also serve as a source of external conflict, so Alice and Lucy have something to unite over. Moreover, if Lucy hasn’t got a single connection beside Alice, that isn’t sweet—it’s terrifying. Emotional isolation is a hallmark of unhealthy—and often abusive—relationships.
Some people are loners and that’s fine. But if this describes your main character, that is not an excuse to have them wander through the story alone. They don’t need friends. They don’t need a love interest. But that doesn’t stop you from giving them partners, rivals, enemies, associates, and employers. Nor does it stop them from having good chemistry with other characters.
In fact, many loners are at their most interesting when they’re being forced to deal with people. Why? Because tension happens whenever a character is pushed out of their comfort zone. Whether the result is snarky banter or uncomfortable silence, something interesting happens when loners are confronted with team work.
Things That Lone Characters Are Pretty Awful At:
- Giving exposition (unless they break the fourth wall, in which case they’re not so alone anymore)
- Picking fights
- Falling in love
- Confrontations in general
- Generating subtext
- Developing relationships
You do not need to eliminate the scenes in which any given character is alone on the page, because some things may require a character to be alone. There are whole books featuring a single character (a great example is Patrick Rothfuss’s Slow Regard of Silent Things), and some of the are pretty darn good. But if there isn’t a strong rhetorical reason for your characters spending so much time alone—or with only one or two other people—odds are that they’d benefit from a few connections.
The goal is to run a bit of maintenance on this blog before the end of the summer. Coming soon: more cover photos for articles, standardized formatting, and a better category break-down.