The Anatomy of Secondary Characters
One of the best things about writing fiction is falling in love with our main characters. As our creations, they are a little part of us. We want them to succeed, and, like anyone we care about, we want to share them with the world. The thing is, our creations can’t be too perfect or the world won’t believe in them.
So we do what we have to. We give them weaknesses: flaws that impede their chances of success. Then we throw obstacles into their paths that they cannot hope to overcome with these particular flaws. Merciless creators! Is this the way to treat someone you love?
Yes. It’s hard, but we have to do it. For tension. For story. And it’s not like we make them go it alone, right? We supply them with a cast of secondary characters to help out.
I spent a lot of time thinking about secondary characters and the roles they play in story while preparing for a class I was teaching. I realized then that all secondary characters really just have one role:
Whether they are love interests, best friends, teachers, parents, or villains—they are all amplifiers for our main character (MC). They work to make the MC greater, stronger, more knowledgeable, and better equipped to accomplish their goals.
The MC and secondary characters usually function together as a unit—a single body where all parts are important to success. As I started thinking about it this way, I realized most secondary characters can be assigned a role based on the body part they enhance.
Does your secondary character amplify your MC’s brain, ear, heart, or something else?
If your secondary character helps the MC by sharing vast knowledge needed to resolve conflicts, consider this character the brain. Hermione Grainger from Harry Potter is a great example—face it, Harry wouldn’t have known the sorcerer’s stone from a garden rock without Hermione’s encyclopedic brain. Or the Malcolm character from Jurassic Park. His vast understanding of statistics serves to warn paleontologist Alan Grant of the real possibilities of imminent danger.
A best friend character often functions at the ear. This is the character who listens to the MC’s thoughts and asks the questions the reader would want to ask. Sometimes the ear is also the narrator, recording the story of another character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created such a character in Dr. Watson from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
If your MC isn’t the touchy-feely type, you may need a secondary character to amplify the heart. Your MC’s emotions are revealed through this character. Katniss, from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, is strong but stoic. Her emotions are often revealed through other characters, most notably Rue, a younger, weaker tribute from a poorer district. When Rue is murdered, Katniss pays tribute to her, revealing a tenderness the reader hadn’t seen in her before. This action motivates the people of Rue’s district to aid Katniss, thus changing the trajectory of her story.
Your MC may have too many tasks to handle, or be unable to handle them for some reason. If this is the case, they may need an extra hand. Pong, the main character from Christina Soontornvat’s A Wish in the Dark, escaped the prison system he was born into. While on the run, he lays low, trusting his childhood friend Somkit to supply him with food, clothes, and connections. Since Somkit helps Pong acquire what he cannot acquire alone, he serves as the hand. The same is true of Butler from the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. Artemis, the main character, is just a kid. There is only so much he can physically do, so he counts on his massive bodyguard to carry out the more physical parts of his schemes.
Does your character’s success rely on information they could not have obtained on their own? If so, you’ll need a character to amplify the mouth. This character gives voice to information necessary for understanding the MC’s motivations or history. Doc, uncle of twins Jez and Jay in Eden Royce’s debut middle grade novel Root Magic, functions as the mouth. When the twins’ grandmother passes away, Doc begins instructing them on the history and practices of Gullah-Geechee root magic, supplying Jez and her brother with the skills and magic they will need when evil visits their town.
Often in fantasies the mouth is an older, Merlin-Gandalf-Dumbledore-Yoda type character, who shares information that might otherwise be lost, but is crucial to the MC’s journey. In mysteries, the mouth might be the person with access to information the MC needs to solve a crime. Like the town busybody. Or a police investigator.
The character who showcases the MC’s strengths by being an opposite or alter ego can be considered the ego. A villain often assumes this role. This type of character frequently appears in the Marvel Universe. Think Spiderman and the Green Goblin. But it can also be a friend whose opposite qualities help accentuate the MC’s strengths or inner character.
Every now and then, our MC will become micro-focused on the goal at hand and forget who they are. The conscience is there to keep the MC in check. As Frodo becomes more and more mesmerized by the ring, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee functions as the conscience. In Rebecca Petruck’s middle grade novel Boy Bites Bug, this role falls to Eloy Herrera. Will, the main character, learns to recognize when he is culturally insensitive, and when his antics go too far, through Eloy’s reactions.
Our main characters, especially if they are to have adventures or quests, need transportation. Secondary characters who help the MC get from point A to point B function as the foot. In Holly Black’s Cruel Prince, Vivi, half-sister of the main character Jude, is half fairy. She can create steeds capable of crossing from the mortal world to the fairy world with magic and ragweed. The story depends upon Jude’s ability to travel between worlds, so Vivi and her talents are essential to the story.
As you hone your secondary characters, think about what they amplify or showcase in your main characters. The role you assign them doesn’t have to be rigid!
Your secondary characters might function as multiple body parts simultaneously. For example, in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Augustus Waters is both heart and foot for Hazel Grace Lancaster. His admiration of her elevates her and teaches her that she has time left to love. However, it is also because of him that she is able to travel to Amsterdam, which makes him the foot.
You also might have several characters functioning as the same body part in a single story. Every member of the Fellowship of the Rings in The Lord of the Rings functions as the foot during parts of this fantasy. And for The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, Rue is not the only character who serves as the heart. Peeta shows Katniss more love than she returns, amplifying the heart of the story, and the tension, when they are faced with life or death choices.
If our stories are good, our main characters are probably in trouble. We need to throw them the strongest lifelines we can: secondary characters who will work as one with them, amplifying their traits and making the impossible possible.
*Feature photo by Donatello Trisolino (Pexels)