So what's the deal with secondary characters? Or, as I like to think of them ... characters. Some are big, some are small, some are used by our main characters (as they should be) and some take on a life of their own.
I guess the question is, when is a secondary character just a tool, and when do they add an additional layer of realism to your story?
|No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;|
|Am an attendant lord, one that will do|
|To swell a progress, start a scene or two,|
|Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,|
|Deferential, glad to be of use,||115|
|Politic, cautious, and meticulous;|
|Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;|
|At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—|
|Almost, at times, the Fool.|
from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet are probably the best examples of secondary characters that serve no purpose other than to move the plot along. What do we know about them? Before Act I, they were supposedly friends with Hamlet, since he seems so upset at their betrayal. They must have been close with the queen and Hamlet's uncle, since the usurping king brought them into his confidence. And yet, after they have done their part, they are summarily dispensed with--Hamlet has them executed and ambassadors from England arrive just long enough to announce that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead."
Just like that. No fanfare. Two characters that used to be on stage will no longer be joining us for the denouement, but will return for curtain calls. In fact, Tom Stoppard actually wrote an absurdist version of Hamlet called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which shows the action from the perspective of arguably the least interesting secondary characters ever.
Sometimes writing a Rosencrantz or a Guildenstern is necessary--I mean, even Shakespeare did it. But as T.S. Eliot points out in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, no one wants to be a secondary character. Everyone wants to be the star.
How would The Hunger Games have looked if it was retold from Finnick's perspective? A political prisoner advising his own tributes in the Games, who die early on, and then watching as some girl from District 12 eliminates all her other competitors. I mean, it's even grimmer when you look at it like that.
The Hunger Games doesn't need to actually be re-written for us to imagine what book 1 was like for Finnick Odair, who doesn't even appear until book 2. That's because he's a well-drawn secondary character. We know his motivations, his personality, and we've got some guesses about his internal life, even though he's just part of Katniss' chorus.
So who are some good secondary characters in the vein of Finnick Odair, you might ask?
Petyr Baelish from A Song of Ice and Fire -- he's one of the few characters George RR Martin never uses for a point-of-view chapter (and if you've gotten through book 4, you know why), and yet he propels almost all of the action in Kings Landing.
The Weasley twins in Harry Potter.
Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Margo in Gone Girl.
Isaac in The Fault in Our Stars.
Wendy in The Shining. (The book, not the movie. In the movie, she's really more of a Guildenstern.)
And speaking of him .... what about good secondary characters in the vein of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
I think a solid example is Ruby Oliver's therapist in E. Lockhart's books, Dr. Z. Ruby is telling her stories to Dr. Z, writing everything in a journal. Dr. Z is actually the narrative device for the entire series. Does it really matter that we don't know anything about Dr. Z? Not really.
What are some of your favorite secondary characters?