Special Guest Author
Two things I love as a writer and a reader: deep, emotionally wrought stories, and authentic, rich characters. I am a firm believer that a novel is only as deep as the characters who populate it and, having spent a lifetime reading, a fair chunk of it writing, and devoting a lot of time studying reflections of those who craft great prose, the following are my thoughts on employing secondary characters to give your book greater, richer depth.
1. Consider Your Secondary’s Emotional Relevance
We already know that secondaries exist to move the plot forward (heck—every sentence in your book exists to move the plot forward), but in order to ‘go deep instead of just far’ your secondary needs to do more than just help your story be told. They also need to be emotionally relevant to your hero and / or heroine (or emotionally relevant to the plot itself). In my novel Divinity & The Python, the heroine Shaynie’s refurbished funeral parlor, Divinity, is the chief secondary character and, as the story progresses, it is unmistakable that the old morgue feels as deeply for Shaynie as she feels for it; so much, in fact, that the reader sees how Divinity and Shaynie are completely emotionally enmeshed—one is constantly working to save and/or nurture the other. Their emotional bond is unshakable to the degree that the reader cannot root for one without rooting for the other, and while the story remains completely Shaynie’s, the presence of this secondary, Divinity, is crucial to the emotional thrust of the plot (and definitely critical to the outcome).
2. Does Your Secondary Have His/Her Own Arc?
A simultaneous storyline can significantly deepen the main plot—especially if the arc experienced by the secondary is either the complete antithesis of or the echo of the hero/heroine’s journey. Serial dramas (think Grey’s Anatomy) are masters at this. So was Leigh Bardugo in Shadow & Bone: flawlessly lovely Genya, the heroine’s tailor, has an arc which suggests she is the King’s concubine-under-duress, all while pining for her true love who, ironically and despite her tremendous beauty, barely knows she exists. Her circumstances are different than heroine Alina’s, yet their arcs mirror each other as the conflicts, stakes and ensuing tension they experience are fundamentally the same.
3. Does Your Secondary’s Arc Amplify The Conflict For The Protagonist?
Does your secondary’s plight generate barriers for your hero or heroine? If yes, does this intensify the way your hero and your secondary butt heads? Or does it create tension despite the existing friendship or romance between them? Either possibility makes for deeper storytelling and adds layers to the stakes of your plot. Jessie Burton executes this brilliantly in her novel The Miniaturist. Secondary Marin’s heavy-handed secrecy and hostility surrounding her own arc (which the reader only gets glimpses of till Act III) create umpteen barriers for heroine Nella, thwarting Nella’s every effort to move forward. Yet as the story climaxes, the reader sees that Marin’s arc complements the main plot as a thematic sort of echo; secret loves, secret passions, and secrets ultimately worth dying for. Burton capitalizes on her secondary’s arc to not only drive the tension as high as she can, but also to drive every theme home in the most emotionally charged way possible.
But (every article I write seems to always have a but) every strategy comes with cautions. Be wary of the following pitfalls when you choose to enlarge the personality, storyline, and emotional relevance of your secondary:
While a larger than life secondary can make for excellent storytelling, the risk we run as authors is to draw a character our readers want to see more than our hero and/or heroine. This happened (fans of Cassandra Clare, I implore you to not light me on fire) in the Shadowhunter Series with the magnificent secondary, Magnus Bane. Magnus is an incredible character: flamboyant, witty, clever, and frequently hilarious, as an immortal Magnus holds ancient wisdom—and endures the tragic pain of having seen centuries’ worth of mortal friends, family, and lovers die, thus leaving him lonely. Magnus is such a complex and excellently drawn secondary that guess what? I’d literally thumb through huge chunks of text just to read the scenes he was in next—thereby missing a great deal of the story itself and ending up like that annoying date we’ve all taken to the movie who pesters us with questions: “Now who’s this person? What are they doing here?”
So…like rich food or fine booze, moderation is key when we’ve created a secondary whose strong and compelling personality threatens to upstage the whole show.
2. Don’t Let Your Secondary’s Arc Allow Your Story To Stray
Emotional relevance and plot relevance are the mantras to live by here. Hands up if you watch The Killing.
And that’s a wrap for my thoughts on deep, rich secondary characters. How about your impressions? Or perhaps impressions some outstanding secondaries have made on you. Share and discuss!
Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.
Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.
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