I've been reading a lot of novels lately and noticing that I love some characters, while others I care nothing about. I'm also writing a new book and rethinking ways to make readers know and love my characters. Specifically, I've been thinking about secondary characters, and it occurs to me that there are two major errors writers make with secondary characters: 1) readers either don't know these character well enough, or 2) readers know these characters too well.
Problem One: We Don't Know The Characters Well Enough
Like the lady in the GPS navigation device who speaks only when she wants you to make a turn, some of my secondary characters show up only when I need them to deliver news that will push the story in a new direction. They are more like disembodied voices than flesh and blood people. Readers don't know them, readers don't love them, readers don't even remember they exist until they pipe up with, "Prepare to turn left, now."
One Solution: Find Out What They Want
We need to fight the urge to write parables. The father and his two sons, the unjust judge and the woman who keeps bugging him, the man who finds the pearl in the field--those people don't have names. The woman who sweeps her house looking for the lost coin could just as easily be a carpenter who searches his shop for an expensive tool he misplaced. Parable characters are interchangeable because parables are meant to deliver a message, not people we think of as friends.
Characters we love don't exist only to give us a message. They have names and hopes and dreams and shortcomings. They're real people and we can relate to them.
We celebrate them in song. And we do this not just for the protagonists, but for the secondary character, too. We sing All Hail King Jesus, but we also sing, Dare to be a Daniel. The hero of the Bible is Jesus Christ and he gets the most songs. But everybody, even secondary characters, are heroes in their own little corners of the story world--in their own subplots. They have a part to play, which can't be played by any other character.
Do you remember this from The Two Towers?
Sam is real. We know him. He's not smart, but he's wise. He's not flashy, but he's solid as a rock.
If our secondary characters are the heroes of their own stories they'll feel real. If they have their own goals we won't be able to manipulate them and use them every now and again, and then shove them back into their corners to wait quietly until we need them again.
Of course we don't want to make their stories so important that they overshadow the hero's story. If we overcorrect here, we'll fall into...
Problem Two: We Know Them Too Well
My sidekick characters sometimes like to steal the scene--hog the spotlight.
Have you experienced this? I think I know why it happens to me. My hero usually doubles as narrator. He looks at other characters and tells me what he sees, and since the hero is usually is well-spoken and discerning and witty, he gives me a colorful description of the quirky sidekick.
Once I get that description, I find myself falling in love with the supporting actor. I know him, I understand his quirks, and I think he's funny and sweet, despite his faults.
Meanwhile, no one is telling me about the main character. He doesn't sit around thinking about himself, ticking off his eccentricities. He sees himself as a serious, honest person, working toward an important goal. He doesn't usually poke fun at himself the way he pokes fun, lovingly, at his friends.
One Solution: Let Them Tell You About the Protagonist
I let two or three secondary characters tell me what they think of the main character. What does he look like, what kind of personality does he have? Does he have any quirks? What are his strengths and weaknesses? What do they love best about him, and what fault rubs them the wrong way?
Early on, my main character protects himself, hiding away his peccadilloes. Once his secrets are out, he loosens up and lets people see him for who he really is. I naturally enjoy writing him, he naturally wants more of the spotlight, and the secondary characters take a step back, to their proper places.