The Importance Of Secondary Characters In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti
Secondary characters in a novel are as important as the primary characters. Like the vegetables accompanying a piece of grilled steak, they provide colour, fibre, nutrition, variety, contrast, visual interest and complete the meal. Without them it would just be a lump of steak on your plate. So unless you’re writing something like Waiting for Godot, it’s imperative your other cast members get the full treatment.
By full treatment I mean they must be developed, in your mind and in your background notes primarily, and portrayed in the story in a more subtle way. In other words, not as much back story as the main players. The reader doesn’t need to know but, as their creator, you most certainly do. This gives them a wholeness and sense of authenticity in all their actions and words. Otherwise they can be seen as simple plot devices which help drive the main action. Which they are, you just don’t want them to appear as if they are.
As with the main cast, you need a sense of their physical appearance and their driving motivations but they must never overshadow the main characters and not descend into caricature. Caricature is an easy trap to fall into. Wikipedia says, ‘In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.’ A character like this tends to be unbelievable and sounds a false note in the overall story. They can be enormous fun to write, think of Mr Collins and Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but getting the essence of their humanity beneath the quirkiness is vital.
Once you know who they are you can set them to work. There are the secondary characters who support the main character’s storyline, then there are extras. Have a bit of comic fun with the extras but pare it back the more central the characters are to the story. They may be central to a subplot which echoes the themes of the central plot or they may provide an opportunity for conflict which helps strengthen a major character. Whatever their function, they must be as believable and human as the main cast. To return to Mr Collins, the snobbish clergyman set to inherit the Bennett’s home thus depriving the four Bennett girls of their only fortune. He is insufferable in his snobbery, his obsequious attitude to Lady de Bourgh is nauseating, yet he sincerely wishes to help the Bennett girls. His impulse is generous, although comical and repellant to others. It’s that subtle quality which leavens his pompousness and quietly rounds him out to full humanity. I mean, if Charlotte Lucas is prepared to marry him he can’t be the complete fool he sometimes presents as.
Every character is vital to the ultimate fabric of the story. You can’t skimp on development because they aren’t the stars of the show. Give them a subtle depth and they’ll reward you by carrying story, plot and theme to the last page.
Phillipa Fioretti’s author website: www.phillipafioretti.com.au
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