Truth is, most of you probably don’t have a hard time coming up with protagonists and antagonists. Some random character trait, quirk or predicament gnaws at your tail like a rabid squirrel, until you give in and give them the role. Fleshing them out also gets a lot of attention (ideally) and has you hunched over your notebook for weeks. Protagonists have a good life in this respect.
However, while you’re drafting and fighting off anxiety, relatives and your inner editor, don’t neglect the rest of the cast.
Secondary and filler characters rarely benefit from the proper attention that could promote them from props to people, and that’s a terrible shame. Not to mention a crime punishable by pulling out a fingernail with a fishhook, down there in character-world. Character-plane. The place where made-up people are free to frolic to their hearts’ desires… Chara-ville? Ay, charaverso! Olé!
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Secondary characters usually take up supporting roles, either emphasizing various side of the hero, or aiding the villain (un-)willingly in his quest to ruin everything. You drop them into your story wherever it’s convenient, and make them help your protagonist or antagonist and furthen the plot. That’s what they’re here for, right? To support. Right?
Well, secondary characters exist to flesh out the story, but there’s a problem when you do all the work for them. They’re not a bunch of silly masks that you—as the mad genius behind the story—put on whenever you fancy and your spouse ain’t home, to tweak the plot to your delight. Why is that a problem, you ask?
Because your secondary characters don’t know they’re secondary!
As far as they’re concerned, they’re the heroes. They’re the protagonists of their very own stories!
These characters don’t take decisions to put your protagonist in a good light, they take decisions because they have goals of their own. They don’t show up nodding graciously just so your antagonist can explain his plan, and don’t randomly get into trouble only so your hero can come to their rescue. Secondary characters are whole people, with strong arms and backs, and they should work for their cheese like everyone else. Unemployment is a mortal crime in Charaverso. Punishable by transmutation through focused proton beams, or recycling of components, just the same.
Treat your secondary characters like people. Double check their purpose in every scene, to make sure you don’t end up with a bunch of lethargic zombies instead of a fully functional cast. Except, of course, if you’re writing about a zombie rehab. If you find characters sitting around or shadowing your protagonist for no other reason than your desire to have some dialog, write them out. Send them home without a check, or make them bust their asses for you.
Be even more watchful with filler characters. You know, the guys that pop out of the keyboard like whack-a-weasel heads while you’re sitting there innocently plotting your protagonist’s doom. Fillers are transitory and only have a single chance at existence in your story. The least you can do is to make it awesome for them. Give them a chance to shine, a spunky punchline, or an impact of some sort. Don’t just drop them in there to recite a line like a pedestrian filling up ten seconds in a third rate TV movie.
Remember, to all other characters, it’s your spiffy protagonist that’s the passer-by, not them. They’re heroes in their own stories, and you’re just the goon writing the wrong person’s biography.
This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012