. . . from my forthcoming book, A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Fiction for Young Adults. E & E Publishing:
Secondary characters, when developed properly, can give direction to the story by (1) giving an extra dimension to the main character, (2) supporting the plot, and (3) reacting to the setting. Let’s take it one step at a time.:
1. Dialogue: Almost all characters talk, listen, and talk again. They become believable through conversation: through what they say, through their choice of words, and through the rhythm of their speech. Well-written, distinctive dialogue gives the viewpoint character someone to talk to. It allows him/her to agree, disagree, or even argue — all things that give extra dimension to the traits you are trying to establish.
2. Plot: A story requires a cast of characters. You can read through the supporting casts of movies to remind yourself that it takes a lot of secondary characters to make a story. Interaction is the key word here. Sometimes a secondary character interacts so well that he/she threatens to steal the scene. This is not cause for alarm. Such a character can often serve as comic relief, or as dramatic contrast. And there is a bonus — you never know when you might need this very character as the hero or heroine of your next novel!
Secondary characters do not have to be on stage in every scene — only when needed for support. Because they are often off-stage, they are able to report things that happened beyond the viewpoint character’s frame of reference. This technique is invaluable simply because your main character can’t be everywhere at once.
Jane Eyre did not see Rochester’s wife on the flaming roof. She heard about it from a reliable eye-witness. Neither did Angie in my book, To Catch a Golden Ring, witness Con’s terrible accident. She pieced together details from eye-witness secondary characters until it seemed that she had seen it herself.
3. Setting. Just as interaction is important to plot, so is reaction important to setting. In my book, A Place to Belong, the secondary character, Took, hates Bundy Street and everything about it. In the opening scene, he says, “This place is full of termites. I heard them crunching in the walls last night.” The contrast between his attitude and that of the viewpoint character is shown when Jessica discovers that she can see the stars from the roof of the very same tenement building. Her positive feelings are strengthened by the contrast of Took’s anger.
Develop your secondary characters with the same care you give a viewpoint character, and your story will be more believable, more graphic, and more memorable!