I was having a discussion the other day with a fellow writer who had just turned in her first full length novel. She started talking about a sequel she wanted to write, and as I’d had the good fortune to read her manuscript, I was familiar with the character she wanted to carry forward into her next book.
Over a glass of wine, we got to hashing out personality traits for her heroine and it was interesting to hear her thoughts, because as someone who’s listened to editors stressing the importance of creating a heroine who is admirable in most every way, I found it intriguing that the traits she was describing were more in line with those of a secondary character. Recognizing this, we talked about secondary characters and how vital they are to a good story.
Michael Hauge, story consultant and best-selling author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds and Writing Screenplays that Sell, says secondary characters serve as a reflection (best friend, sidekick, confidant) of your protagonist; a nemesis (villain, opponent or embodiment of what keeps him/her stuck), or a romantic interest. They guide your character through his or her emotional transformation, better known as the character arc.
I love writing secondary characters. They get to be quirky or staid; loud and flamboyant or shy and retiring, sometimes even downright nasty. They do things your heroine can’t and say things your heroine wouldn’t. They interact with your main characters but don’t overshadow them, much like the people we meet on a daily or weekly basis.
And then it occurred to me that we are all secondary characters in someone else’s life!
To my friend, I am the voice of experience; the multi-published author who may or may not be able to offer some words of guidance (notice I didn’t say wisdom!) along the way. To the people I work with, I am the romance writer; someone who blathers on at lunch about revisions and rewrites and who they generally get to grammar check their letters and reports. To my family I play a variety of roles, but in each of their lives, I play a distinct part—the way a secondary character does in a protagonist’s.
It is only in our own lives that we get to play the leading role, and in doing so we surround ourselves with a cast of secondary characters; all of whom help guide us through our emotional transformation en route to the end of our stories. And each and every one of those people is as strongly motivated for doing what they do as we are! Every person believes their reasons for acting in a certain way or for saying certain things are entirely logical and justified.
Think about that when you’re writing secondary characters. Make sure their reasons for doing what they do are as strongly motivated and believable as your reasons would be for doing what you do!
Most of us don’t lead lives that would make for riveting best sellers, but we are all the heroes of our own stories and we can all name the people who have shaped our personalities along the way, whether it be as friend, lover, teacher or nemesis.
How would you write your story? And who would appear on those pages as the secondary characters who’ve had the biggest impact on your life? It could be a very enlightening exercise…
NO OCCUPATION FOR A LADY, available now from Harlequin Mills & Boon Historicals