Monday, 12 May 2014

Should Secondary Characters Change?

There are some good reasons to keep secondary characters (both friend and foe) fixed in how you represent them in a story.

A lot of these kinds of characters  aren’t going to be in the story all that much and they have specific roles to play. Whether it’s to move the plot along or reveal aspects of the main character, playing a supporting role doesn’t always benefit from too much fiddling.

You also don’t want to confuse the reader with a constantly changing cast that makes it hard to remember who’s who. Nor do you want to steal focus from the main players by going off on a tangent.

But then, you also don’t want to create a roster of one-dimensional automatons who walk on to the page to deliver the same old shtick every time, like a bad sitcom.

So how do you balance the two? And do you need to?

The most important characters, of course, are the ones the story is about. In most cases this will only be one or two people (if you are writing about a whole town full of people then that’s a whole other set of problems). Other characters who appear more than once won’t be expected to come with reams of backstory or a detailed arc.

But change is interesting to people. It gives depth, and not just the main characters. It triggers the reader’s curiosity and engages them. But you do need to provide answers and it doesn’t always feel worth it if the subject is too incidental or the answers too complex.

Some secondary characters have enough going on that you don’t really need to develop them too much. The witty best friend, the devious nemesis at work, the high school teacher who has an unusual teaching style... if what you give them to do is entertaining enough readers won’t just tolerate it, they’ll actually look forward to seeing them again.

If you genuinely find the secondary character engaging just as they are then there’s no rule that says you have to spin them 180 degrees every time they pop up. But stories tend to have a number of these kinds of characters and chances they won’t all be scene-stealers.

Most secondary characters are there to serve a purpose. To reveal some information, to lend a sympathetic ear, to provoke some action. And the more time you spend filling them out as a person the more the story starts to meander. Do you want to spend time away from the main characters to add layers to a minor one?

The problem is that if it’s too obvious the secondary character is merely there to fulfil a function, especially if it’s the same function every time they turn up, then it can pull the reader out of the story, as any clunky device is apt to do.

On the other hand, if you give them stuff going on in their life that we don’t see but which affects them (e.g. first time we meet them they’re upbeat, but next time they’re pissed off) it can be confusing without an explanation. Of course a simple explanation (an argument with the wife, say) can be quickly mentioned and allow the scene to progress, but what if the first time the character is dressed in jeans and a tee and the next he’s in full goth gear? It might take more than a line of dialogue to explain a change that drastic.

That doesn’t mean you’re only options are to keep changes insignificant and be very brief with your explanations, or to avoid it altogether (although both are options).

What you can do is link the change in your secondary characters to your MC. If the reason the secondary character goes from happy to angry, or from casual to goth, is due to something the MC says or does to them, then it keeps the focus where you want it (the  main players) while showing us the cause of the secondary character’s change.

Not only does this add depth to a secondary character in a satisfying way, it also allows the main character to develop as they react to the change they’re faced with.

Is this always necessary? No. But if a secondary character feels dull or flat and you want to give them more than a faceless cameo, consider making the MC the source of any change.

Whether it’s dealing with the barista he gets coffee from in the morning or the police informant he gets leads on the case he’s working, if their interaction works both ways (one affects the other) then each meeting will have a different tone, providing variety, and at the same time it will allow for all characters in the scene to express themselves in a number of ways.

Often all this takes is to have the main character enter the scene in a different mood to the one they were in last time they met a particular character, usually by taking into account what just happened in the previous scene. Whatever the main character is dealing with (good or bad) will affect how they interact with whoever they bump into next, even if that person is just serving them coffee.

As long as we see the change happen and it involves a central character as well as the secondary one, you don’t have to take time away from the main narrative.

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think their interactions with the main characters is one of the best ways to show changes in growth in minor characters. And if you're working on a series, those minor characters have even more room to grow.

Unknown said...

I'll likely be making change happen in one of my secondary characters. This is because he had caught the interest of a few in my writing group. If a character stands out like that, I like to play with it a bit and see what comes of him.

It's exciting to have more than one character involved in the plot, but I agree, two many details can get hairy and pretty annoying.

Al Diaz said...

This reminds me of a secondary character in Monster Hunter Legion Series. He doesn't change but one tends to look forward to when he appears. It is just the chemistry between him and the main character that makes things so funny.

LD Masterson said...

You've got me mulling over what to do with one of my characters. He was pretty much who and where I wanted him to be from the beginning. Didn't leave enough room for growth. Got to revisit.

Unknown said...

Agreed; it's all well and good wanting to flesh out a subsidiary character (and you should, at least in your head, if you want a well rounded world), but they need to bring the focus in on your MC and your main narrative to be of interest to the reader.

Unknown said...

Very interesting. I guess it is hard to set the mood for a really interesting minor character.

mooderino said...

@alex - a series is certainly worth exploiting in the manner you describe.

@Diane - finding the right balance is never easy but great when it feels right (after all the tweaking).

@Al - this is one of the confusing aspects of this subject, that we all like characters in stories that we don't want to see change.

@LD - also worth considering that in some cases it will work fine as is, if the character is entertaining enough.

@Jamie - yes, in your head they should be fleshed out either way.

@Lilith - although a good zinger every time they turn up can help you get away with murder

Crystal Collier said...

I totally believe that secondary characters should be evolving along with the main characters, but in a less pronounced fashion. Yes, they should change, but slower. Static characters kind of drive me batty.

Misha Gerrick said...

Sensible advice. It's better to keep everything swirling around the story, or else it looks unfocused.

Chemist Ken said...

Ah, another thing to add to my bag of writing tricks. I'm going to have to get a bigger bag soon. Thanks.

mooderino said...

@crystal - a fun character gets away with it sometimes, i think.

@Misha - it's hard to care when you go too deep into other characters' lives.

@Ken - my bag is stuffed full. Always room for more though.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

In fantasy epics, secondary characters can become major ones when the major ones get killed off. I think this really prolongs a story and I'm not sure I'm a fan of the never-ending fantasy epic.

mooderino said...

@mike - yeah, not sure that's always a good idea. I like a story to be about who it's about.

Al Diaz said...

The very first story I wrote has dozens of characters. I learned this lesson the hard way. I must say all of your examples always leave me wishing for more. You are the only person that makes me miss writing stories.

cleemckenzie said...

I love it when characters are complex and interesting without being contrived. That's such a task for the writer and when characters and their relationships are done well, the reader can fall into the story and just be there, enjoying. Ah. Yes. Please.

For me, I have limited ability to keep track of where those characters are and what they're doing, so I have to keep the numbers down. I love three and no more than four at a time.

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