One Writer’s Writing Secrets: For the love of… Secondary Characters

A friend asked:

Why do secondary characters always seem more interesting than the MCs? Can someone answer than for me? And I’m not talking about someone else’s stories, I’m talking about my own. The MC should be the most important to me, right? Argh!

My 2 cents:

There is a reason why secondary characters steal the scene if not the story (book, film or stage).  It is because they are written without the restraints we put on our Main Characters.  They don’t even have to be sane! 

It is important to remember, though, that most attempts to turn Secondary Characters into Main Characters have been dismal failures.  Secondary Characters are not designed to carry a while story.  They are only there to make the Main Character laugh or cry.

Later, in thinking about this, I decided it might help to give an example. 

This is from my time travel fantasy series:

The book: Light in the Dark Ages 

Time:  after 700 AD in the days before Charles was called “Martel” (The Hammer)

Place:  The border between Brittany and the Frankish Kingdom

            Margueritte was in the barn, in the potato bins when Roland came unexpectedly.  She was in her apron.  Her hands were dirty and she even had a streak of dirt across one cheek put there by the back of the hand used to wipe away the sweat.  “Oh, Sir.”  She started to turn away.

            “Oh stop,” he said in her same tone.  “My mother and sisters sorted potatoes all the time, and likely more than enough for a lifetime.”

            “It is important, you know,” Margueritte said, agreeably.

            “Absolutely.  One rotten one can spoil the whole bin.”  Roland looked up at Grimly [imp], whom he genuinely liked, and Goldenrod [fairy] for whom he had the deepest love and affection, and Hammerhead [ogre], whom he at least respected, even if he still found it hard to look at the fellow.  They were lounging around on the hay while their mistress was sweating at her labor.  “Say, though,” he said.  “Wouldn’t it be better to let these little ones of yours sort the potatoes?  You and I could maybe walk again by the stream before your brother and father find me.”

            “Oh, I don’t know if that would be such a good idea.”  Margueritte shook her head, slowly.

            “Why sure.”  Grimly jumped up.  “We would love to sort the taters.  I’m getting bored just sitting around anyway.”

            “I can help.”  Goldenrod assured them all.

            “Er, OK.”  Hammerhead was not quite sure what was being asked.

            Margueritte explained while she wiped her hands as clean as she could on her apron.  “You just need to go through them one by one.  The good ones go here.”  She pointed to the empty bin.  “Any that are especially soft or if they are rotten, or even if you are not sure if they are good to eat, put them in the bucket.  Oh I don’t know.”  She said the last in one breath, and as she began to have second thoughts, she quickly turned to Roland and bumped into him.  He put his arm over her shoulder to steady her.

            “We can stay a minute to see that they get started,” he said.

            Margueritte reached both hands up to hold his and make sure his arm stayed around her shoulder.  She said nothing, but bit her lower lip as she watched.

            “Now, if I’ve got it, the good ones go in the bin and the rotten ones in the bucket.  Come on, then.” Grimly took charge and climbed up on the bin.  Each little one took a potato.  At least Goldenrod tried to take one, but she could not quite lift it.  Hammerhead took about six in his big hand by accident and then stared at them in utter uncertainty.  Grimly made up for the other two by instantly going from one to the next.

            “No good, no good.  Definitely no good.  Nope. No way.  Not a chance.”

            “Ungh!”  Goldenrod was tugging with all her little might.

            “Nope. No good. Ooo, this one looks like Herbert Hoover.”

            “Let me see.”  Goldenrod said, leaving off her tug of war.

            Hammerhead was still unmoved, staring at his spuds.

            “Who is Herbert Hoover?”  Goldenrod asked.

            “I don’t know, but this looks like him.”  He looked at Goldenrod and they spoke in unison. 

            “No good.”  The bucket was filling rapidly and not one was yet in the bin.

            “Nope. Nope. Nope.”  Grimly started shoveling toward the bucket and Goldenrod was back to tugging until Grimly made enough of a dent for her potato to roll and take herdown with it with a “Weee!”

            Margueritte’s sides were splitting with laughter, and Roland was laughing right with her until she turned toward him and their eyes met.  The laughter vanished in an instant and he drew her up to him and held her tight.  Their lips touched, soft and warm, and they might have remained that way for some time if Grimly had not whistled.


            “Whaty?”  Goldenrod said, getting her little head above the edge of the bin.

            Roland looked up and Marguerite turned, both having rather silly smiles, just as Hammerhead stuck all six potatoes in his mouth at once and chewed and announced.  “These are good to eat.”  Margueritte barely stopped him in time, before he disgorged his chewed bits into the good bin.

            She thanked the little ones and asked them to see if Luckless or Tomberlain might need their assistance.

            “Always glad to be of service.”  Grimly said, and Roland rolled up his sleeves and helped.

Tip #13

Secondary Characters should be designed for a purpose, not to carry the story, necessarily, but to help or hinder the Main Character, to “make the Main Character laugh or cry.”  Within that context, be creative, have fun, and if you enjoy them that is a good sign that the readers will probably enjoy them, too.

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