A Guest Post by Ramona Richards
When I open my workshop on secondary characters, I often tell about editing one of the first novels of a best-selling Christian author—and how I delivered the news to her that she needed to cut one of her secondary characters.
She wasn’t happy. I could understand her concern. This young man had a significant role in her book from Chapter 2 right up to Chapter 40. He was the heroine’s friend and sidekick. But, despite all her intentions, he had turned into much more than a sidekick; he was a distraction. He drove much of the action by making decisions that should have belonged to the heroine, and for 300-plus pages, the reader became more interested in him than the hero.
He was a prime example of how secondary characters can easily kill a book, especially in romance novels, in two ways:
1) They’re too weak or too strong. Neither is good when it comes to secondary characters. If they’re too weak, they can fail to perform their duties, which is to engage the reader (and editor!) in all aspects of the H/H’s lives. If they’re too strong, they become as dynamic or more so than the lead(s). They take over roles and duties that should be carried out by the leads, thus weakening the lead’s character development.
For instance, one of the most infamous “secondary who took over” characters in movie history has to be Captain Jack Sparrow. According to the writers, the protagonist of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie is Elizabeth. The film opens with her, and is primarily her story. But it’s not her entrance that people recall when they think of the film.
2) They proliferate like little bunnies. There are so many of them, no one can keep them straight. In addition to having a secondary character who tries to take over, the easiest way to lose an editor’s attention is for your story to be confusing or annoying. By the time you introduce, describe, and give a life history to the 20th secondary character, an editor is going to be both.
For instance, everyone knows that it takes hundreds of crew members to make a cruise ship run smoothly. But if you set a romantic suspense book on a boat that size, don’t involve your reader with everyone on the ship’s manifest.
Take a moment to think about some of your favorite secondary characters, either your own or from well-known books or movies. Any of them take over? Which ones would you like to see have their own story told?
As we go through the workshop, I’ll give tips and guidelines on developing fully your secondary characters—making them special—while still keeping them in line. We’ll also talk about levels of characters, character archetypes, and what role the antagonist plays in all this.
I hope to see you there!
Ramona Richards is a speaker, writer, and editor whose latest book, My Mother’s Quilts, is from Worthy Publishing. Ramona has been an editor for Abingdon Press, Thomas Nelson, Rutledge Hill Press, and Ideals magazine, and has freelanced for more than a dozen others. The author of seven novels, three books of devotions, and numerous magazine articles, she is a frequent speaker for women’s and writers’ groups, and has presented at numerous conferences across the country.
Shoot the Deputy: How Secondary Characters Can Make or Break a Novel
Secondary characters are often too prolific or too underdeveloped. This workshop provides tips on controlling your supporting cast: how different levels of characters should be revealed and built into the plot, explanations of how flat secondary characters can kill a sell, and tips on how to layer your characters in order to build interest and curiosity without taking over a book.