It isn’t always easy to draw a clear line between your main characters and your supporting characters or, at the other end of the character importance spectrum, between your supporting characters and your background characters. And that isn’t a problem most of the time; it’s not like you need to be able to sort everybody in your story strictly into categories based on their page-time and significance to the overall plot. That said, it is important to have an awareness of whether the secondary characters in your story are contributing something worthwhile. It can be easy to get attached to characters you’ve invented and allow them to pop up all over the place without actually doing anything, without growing or changing themselves, without making a difference to the world around them.
Now, obviously, not every single character needs a backstory, a character arc and a significant contribution to the plot. You already know if some of your characters have deliberately limited roles and don’t need expanding on beyond that, or if their role in the story is instrumental and their every sentence is totally justified.
For our purposes today, we’re looking at the ones you’re not so sure about. Today we’re looking at the shirkers, the slackers, the characters taking up space in your manuscript without pulling their narrative weight. Today, we’re looking at three main questions in relation to your secondary characters:
- How much time is your reader spending with that character?
- How is that character adding to your story?
- If they’re not adding anything, or not enough for the amount of page-time they’re getting, what can you do about it?
Are you still talking?
Go and have a look at how much time each of your secondary characters is actually around for. Look at how many scenes they’re in, and how much they speak or otherwise interact with your other characters. Make a little list of your secondary characters and an indication of how much time your reader will spend with them over the course of the book. This can be as vague or specific as you like, whatever’s going to be most helpful to you. I might be inclined to work out the percentage of scenes or pages they appear on, or count lines of dialogue, but I’m a massive nerd and data fanatic so that’s just what I do for fun. Please don’t let that put you off.
Right away you’re probably going to get a sense for whether your secondary characters are currently over- or under-represented compared to their actual importance in your plot, but we’re going to clarify that further in our next step.
What is the point of you?
Real people (obviously—I hope) don’t need to justify their existence by having some specific role or purpose. Not so much with your fictional people, I’m afraid. Everybody who exists in your book has to have a reason for being there, even if that reason is basically to be part of the scenery. Those would be background characters though, so let’s move on to some of the purposes your secondary characters might serve:
- To illustrate something about the main character(s)
- To create a specific drama or conflict
- To explain something about the world or deliver information
- To provide comic relief
- To facilitate growth or change for your protagonist
Those are just some illustrative examples, I’m sure the characters in your story have all sorts of things going on. Go back to the list you made a moment ago and, for each character, make a note of the function or functions they’re currently providing in the story.
Now you can start to compare the amount of time each character is getting in your manuscript to the amount of work they’re doing for your other characters or plot. If one of your supporting characters is showing up in almost every scene but only serving the purpose of kicking off one minor conflict, that may not be an ideal balance. To look at the other end of the spectrum, if you have a character who’s supposed to be demonstrating some important growth in your protagonist through their ongoing relationship, and that character shows up once or twice at the beginning of your story and then pops back in at the end, something’s not right there.
Once you’ve identified any possible mis-matches, it’s time to fix it!
What are we going to do with you?
So, you’ve got a supporting character—or several—not doing enough, or trying to do too much and not having time to do any of it properly (I mean, relatable). There are, as always, endless possible ways you can address an issue like this in your writing, and you might want to try out a few of them to see what fits best in your project.
- Get to know them
Some problems are best approached side-on, and I think supporting characters can fall into this category. Rather than go straight for trying to work out whether a secondary character needs more time and less to do or vice versa, see what happens when you just look at who that character is and where they’ve come from in your story. What’s their history? What do they want? Do they have any kind of character arc at the moment? Taking a bit of time to work on your character might give you some insight into what makes sense for their role within the story, and will hopefully help you make sure that any changes you make to that character’s place in the narrative feel organic rather than arbitrary.
- Kill ‘em off!
Maybe not literally, but if you have a bunch of characters who all feel like they’re hanging around without much to do see what happens if you just… get rid of a few. In an early draft of the fantasy story I re-worked in November, I had my main character, two companion characters who were peers of hers and two guide characters who were older. I realised that I had one character who was basically just a love interest for my protagonist, one who was mostly there to be the nice one and provide some emotional support and two whose only real purpose was to educate both the main character and the reader about the world of the story. By turning four characters into two, I was able to easily make those two characters more significant and, to be frank, interesting.
- Give them some breathing room
Let’s say you have the opposite problem, and your poor supporting characters are overburdened with purpose but don’t have the space in the story to actually make it work. In that case, you either need to distribute your plot functions differently among the supporting characters or go back to your outline and look at where you can write in some more time for your secondary characters to shine. That might mean more opportunities to show up in scenes, more lines of dialogue or just that your main character needs to spend more time thinking about them.
How do you handle your secondary characters?
Do you find that you tend to have too many? I feel like my second drafts are mostly about halving the number of supporting characters, so that is definitely the way I tend to go with this. Do you get too invested in your supporting characters and end up struggling to find time for them all? Do you have any tips for making sure the characters other than your protagonist are doing their fair share? Let me know in the comments!