I love secondary characters – they add so much to the story when used well. I love this post by Nancy – it highlights the most impactful ways to use them to draw your reader deeper into the story.
Don’t Ignore the Incidental Character
Why are secondary characters so forgettable?
Every story contains a character who has a short-term presence in the story. He exists in a few sentences, for one reason, to help move the story along. This type of character is called a secondary character or an incidental character. Most readers will glance at the name, give it a momentary thought and then forget the character ever existed. The reader’s focus is on the main characters ― where it should be. But why can’t we give our readers a deeper focus? By developing our secondary characters as well as our hero and heroine, our readers will be drawn deeper into the world we have created.
In real life, all of us encounter many ‘secondary’ characters or acquaintances; the clerk ringing up our purchase at the grocery store, the busboy who removes the dishes from our table at a restaurant. But these people, who only exist in our lives for a few minutes, are real, and the way we interact with them ― a kind smile, a harsh word ― during this brief meeting can change lives. We walk away from that encounter, but it stays with us for a long time.
Often secondary characters can be forgettable. Why are these characters so easily forgotten by readers and deleted by editors? My answer: I didn’t bring them to life on the page. When my hero meets a secondary character, his reactions are influenced by the secondary character’s actions. If I truly understand who that secondary character is and know a little about his backstory, then I can make their brief interaction more emotional and real resulting in a deeper connection with the reader.
I build conflict into my stories by placing my hero and heroine in particularly traumatic events. It is crucial that I recognize that the main characters are not the only ones being affected. For instance, my first book, In the Shadow of Greed begins with a horrific attack of a young college student named Hanna Tu. The hero of Greed, Jason McNeil is sent off to the hospital to get the victim’s statement. Jason’s meeting with Hanna was the story I wanted to write. One of my secondary characters, Jason’s brother, Jared McNeil is ordered to the crime scene. In Greed, the reader learns very little about who Jared is and what kind of man he will become. In fact, Greed could have existed without him.
But Jared McNeil has his own story. He had to be as emotionally affected by the attack of the young student as Jason. The event will alter his view of the world for the rest of his life. By considering the secondary characters who were closely connected to the event, I inadvertently found myself with another storyline and the second book in my series, In the Shadow of Evil.
Let’s take a brief look at my most incidental character in Greed. Calista Martin appeared in the first chapter and her entire role in the story took less than a page. Calista argues with her best friend, Hanna Tu and then storms out of her apartment. Hanna is knocked against the wall from behind by the serial killer as soon as the door closes. We know what happens to Hanna because the event is played out on the pages in both novels, but we never again read anything about Calista.
When I created Calista, I realized that being the last person to speak to Hanna would change Calista’s life forever. At the time, Calista’s purpose was to give the reader a glimpse into Hanna’s life before everything changed. What I hadn’t realized was how much Calista’s character would haunt me. She morphed from an incidental character into the heroine of the third book, In the Shadow of Malice, and my planned four book series turned into a five book series.
As an author, I have the privilege of creating my characters and giving their stories the weight and purpose they deserve. In a small way, I’m trying to honor their humanity. As a romance novelist, it is vital I know exactly who my hero and heroine are and understand how they will grow as the story progresses. Taking the time to understand and develop all my characters, even those who might initially seem to be insignificant, I’m gaining a deep perceptive of the story and giving my readers a richer experience. As a side benefit, who knows, I have a leg up on my next story.
How do you use your incidental characters to make your story sing?
On Friday, Robin Covington discusses why she’s excited to explore a new romance sub genre.
Nancy C. Weeks has loved happy-ever-after romances since she was in her early teens. While still in college, she met and married her hero and spent the next several years honeymooning and working overseas. Today, she lives in suburban Maryland with her husband of more than thirty years. With her two grown children almost out of the nest, she loves spending her days on her deck writing as the local bird population keeps her company.
Links where you can find more about Nancy:
Pinterest: Books by Nancy C. Weeks