Cutting the Secondary Character Down to Size

I have a confession to make. Sometimes–whether it’s in one of my own stories or someone else’s–I fall in love with a secondary character. You know who I mean: the best friend or the oddball neighbor or the quirky boss who never wins the love interest, but deserves to. I’ve read stories like The Princess Bride and become more enamored with the complex Inigo Montoya than with the far-too-perfect Westley (although Cary Elwes made the farmboy/dread Pirate Roberts extremely appealing in the movie version).

This affliction goes back a long way. Even, at the age of fourteen, when I cracked open that classic historical romance, The Flame and the Flower, I couldn’t understand why Heather preferred brooding, bossy Brandon to sunny, fun-loving little brother, Jeff.

Writers often struggle to find that balance for secondary characters. On the one hand, they’re a necessary foil to our protagonists-providing information, stumbling blocks, or a sounding board. And yet, if we’re not careful, they can steal the scene or the whole story! That’s why we sometimes write sequels-because a bit player calls to us so strongly, we realize (s)he deserves to have a chance to find happiness or tell his/her side.

What makes a strong secondary character? It’s not just his or her relationship to the protagonists, a role that can be as sidekick, teacher, new antagonist, or a total stranger along for the ride. In personality, (s)he can be enigmatic, quirky, brooding, annoying, humorous, or vile-but never come across as cardboard.

Herein lies the problem for writers. The traits that flesh out a good secondary character are the same as what we like to see in a good protagonist: charm, humor, flaws, empathy, interesting backstory, and, of course, good looks are always a nice bonus. Considering we get all that and, if the secondary character isn’t a villain, we don’t spend too much time peering at the darker side, it’s no wonder we tend to become attached and root for the secondary character to win in the end.

So, what can you do if your secondary characters are stealing the spotlight and you’re either having trouble getting them to give up the attention or don’t want to write a follow-up book? There are ways to pound that stage hog back into his still compelling, but less important secondary role. Try one of these:

  1. Cut her backstory. Did you give her too much onstage time in prior chapters or too much background info? Don’t over-pack and create a diva. Make sure you’re keeping a tight balance between what’s needed to know and her excess baggage.
  2. Change his agenda. You don’t have to change him from a good guy to a bad guy. But give him a reason to screw up, or increase the tension for our protagonists, or somehow have a different plan in mind than what you’d originally conceived for him.
  3. Complete him in the subplot. Make your secondary character’s tale the subplot of your story and complete his story arc within that subplot.
  4. Grant her a “moment.” Sometimes, all she needs is her soliloquy, her chance to shine, her one great line. Give it to her, and she might happily fade into the background again with her compatriots, allowing the “stars” their rightful place front and center onstage.
  5. Kill him off. There’s no better way to guarantee you won’t have to write a sequel about a character (unless like in my Afterlife Series, your characters are dead to begin with.)