1: Just as secondary characters have their own lives, they have feelings that have NOTHING to do with the protagonist. Sometimes we have to say this to people we know: "Just because I'm upset and you happen to be in the room doesn't mean it's about you!" People have lives, concerns, plans. Let your secondary characters have lives that the protagonist doesn't even know about!
2: Secondary characters need to further the plot or push against the protagonist’s character/plot arc. The acid test? If you can take this secondary character out and nothing in your plot changes, then they don’t belong. It’s very sad, I know—but you have to kick them out. Tell them it’s not personal, that you like them, and they can go in a different book! Maybe they deserve one of their very own!
3: Eliminate redundancies. Combine roles in single characters; it lends them complexity and keeps the narrative cleaner. For example, in A LADY IN THE SMOKE, I had two sidekicks for Tom Flynn, one an echo and one a foil. I cut it to one, Jeremy, who could serve both roles.
4: Don’t introduce your secondary characters all at once. It’s far too confusing. Space them out. Each time you introduce one, put [NSC] (New Secondary Character) in brackets in your manuscript. As you get toward the middle-ish, or even the end of writing your draft, do a SEARCH for all the [NSC]s. Are there too many too close together?
5: Help your reader keep them straight. A few good ways
• Distinguish the voices. In Stef Penney’s brilliant historical novel THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, she has four or five different narrators, and the voices are so different you don’t even need to be told who’s speaking. This difference in voices will often evolve naturally if you’ve done your off-stage work.
• Associate characters with a particular hobby or place. Someone who is always fiddling with his stamp collection or playing her piano. Someone who goes to the same bar every day after work.
• If it’s been a while since we’ve since the SC, remind the reader with a bit of dialog or internalization of who she is.
"Sorry," she interrupted. "I don't think I've met Mr. Jonas."
"Yes, you did," he replied. "At Mr. Wells's barbecue. He wore that Hawaiian shirt and threw his beer can over the wall at the dog."
• Make sure your character names don’t sound too similar. Blackwell and Boulter and Bingley and Burns … change it up. And don't refer to characters by multiple names. Mr. Blackwell and Simon and Buddy may all be the same person, but if you use the three names interchangeably, your reader is likely to feel confused. (Often readers feel confused by Russian novelists who refer to one character by various names, surnames, and titles.)
• Red herrings—especially the false suspects--must feel real. Otherwise you are tipping your hand to the reader that they won’t be legitimate suspects.
6. Last but not least …. Play with your secondary characters. Often an eccentric, quirky character is a ton of fun. Think of Johnny Depp’s pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean. He’s wacky and full of unexpected, out-of-the-box, actions and memorable as a result. Now, that’s all good but you may not want your main character to be that quirky—for two reasons. First, because it’s hard to sustain that level of quirkiness for hundreds of pages—it’s like a joke that gets old. Second and more important, the wackiness is a single attribute and doesn’t necessarily lend itself to complexity or personal growth—which is, as most of us would agree, necessary in a MC. But wackiness can be great fun and very memorable in secondaries.
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