This workshop has several parts. Here, I present 15 different possible roles for the secondary characters. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but this will get us started.
(1) Expert. This character provides expertise or information to the Main Character (MC). This can be as simple as the help Hermione Granger provides Harry Potter, given her superior book-knowledge and ability with spells. For amateur sleuths, this can be someone in the crime-fighting professional realm such as a Medical Examiner, or a search-and-rescue dog handler, or a scientist or a hacker. For a professional detective, it might be a ballerina who can give him insight into her cut-throat dance world, or a priest, or a make-up artist. In short, it’s anyone who has knowledge outside the MC’s realm that the MC needs to get things done.
(2) Guide. This is a special instance of the expert. This Secondary Character can be one or two steps ahead on a learning curve. For example, your MC has just lost her brother to cancer; and the Guide character lost his sister to cancer two years ago. The Guide can be a mentor, or merely a character who might provide sympathy, understanding, or another perspective.
(3) Narrator. Examples of this are Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby or Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes tales.
Sherlock is the MC, but Watson writes all the tales, and as with most Secondaries who serve as narrators, he has a very distinctive voice. I’m going to read the opening paragraphs of The Hound of the Baskervilles: “Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a `Penang lawyer.'” Right off we hear Dr. Watson’s long sentences, his double negatives, his awareness of things that are “known” by other people, and his habit of tucking startling facts into subordinate clauses, as if nothing Sherlock Holmes does will surprise him.
(4) Ally. This is someone closely associated with the protagonist or the antagonist, and, significantly, has some of the same virtues and values. This character often serves to prove the need for, and reinforce the value of, the MC's traits in their world. For example, Gale serves the role of ally for Katniss in District 12 in The Hunger Games. At the level of plot, he’s her backup and helper, and her surrogate caretaker for Prim when Katniss leaves for the games. But at the level of character, he provides context. That is, Katniss’s ruthless streak might not be so acceptable to us except that Gale has it too—and because of this we understand that Katniss’s rough edge has evolved as a result of the harshness of her environment. Thus, our sympathy flows to her more readily. Does that make sense? Another variation of this is to have similarities not in virtues or values but in goals. For example, Dr. Watson is an Ally for Sherlock Holmes, for although Watson is a foil for Sherlock Holmes as far as his characteristics, their goals are aligned: they want to solve the mysteries. Another interesting ally can be a pet—a cat or a dog. One author who did a brilliant job with that was Garth Stein in The Art of Racing in the Rain. But we also see pets as allies in some cozy mysteries.
(5) Foil. This is one of the best-known roles for a Secondary. The foil is usually an ally for the MC, but has different traits. For example, in Anne of Green Gables the unimaginative, rather dull but very beautiful Diana with her lovely dark hair is a foil for imaginative red-haired Anne. Peeta, the gentle baker’s boy, in The Hunger Games trilogy is an ally; but he also serves as a foil for the more combative Katniss.
(6) Love interest. This one is self-explanatory. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Peeta serves this role, as does Gale. However, generally speaking, the love interest also has another role. In Emma, Mr. Knightley is her conscience and her guide, as well as the love interest. In many stories, the love interest is also an ally. But a word of caution here … if the love interest is too close of an ally, usually you will not have that tension between the hero and heroine that can help drive a book. If your romance is a significant subplot, the love interest cannot be merely an echo and helpmate.
(7) The Provider. This character is an ally but is also special kind of foil. This Secondary fills a lack in the Main Character's world. For example, Harry Potter has no loving family who are alive; Ron Weasley has heaps of it, all boisterous and warm.
(8) Comic relief. Ron Weasley and his brothers certainly provide this in the Harry Potter books. Also Hagrid, with his unwise choices in raising dragons. Some other examples of comic relief are R2D2 and C3PO in the Star Wars movies. Another great example is in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, where Merry and Pippin provide comic relief as Bilbo Baggins and crew take a perilous journey to destroy the ring. These two consistently show themselves as practical jokers as well as light-hearted companions for Bilbo:
"I don't think he knows about second breakfast, Pip!"
"What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn't he?"
(9) Conscience. This is someone who shores up the conscience of the protagonist—often by providing insight or confronting the Main Character when he steers down the wrong path. Sometimes this Secondary is older or younger than the MC, someone who speaks with hard-won wisdom or with a child's wide-eyed innocence. But not always. In The Big Easy, one of my favorite movies from the 1980s, the MC is a charming but corrupt cop in New Orleans, played by Dennis Quaid; Ellen Barkin’s character, a righteous DA, shows up to expose the corruption in his department. The Conscience character can also provide the moral compass in a book. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus and Scout (the narrator and MC) both serve as the conscience for the community.
(10) Plain Talker. This person says things that the protagonist can’t. In the series The Crown, Princess Margaret is sometimes given this role; she blurts out things that, for reasons of propriety and politics, her sister Queen Elizabeth can’t. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet often serves this role. This character can serve a variety of purposes. For example, if he says snide things under his breath about an unpopular character, he can demonstrate the Main Character’s tact or forbearance. Or he might say things under his or her breath that are truthful, or wryly observant; and by contrast, the Main Character can come across as naive or self-deceiving.
(11) The innocent victim. This secondary character is rescued by the Main Character—and often this rescue initiates a significant plot arc. For example, Katniss’s sister Prim in The Hunger Games is an innocent victim; through no fault of her own, Prim’s name is picked out of the jar, and Katniss rescues her. In my book A Dangerous Duet, it’s Nell’s friend Marceline, the trapeze artist, who is beaten and left for dead in an alley because people are trying to find her brother, and she loyally refuses to tell them where he is. As a result, Nell has to rescue her—and this starts Nell off on her mystery. Significantly, this Secondary usually has a significant emotional tie to the Main Character prior to the first page of your book. This provides the Main Character with motive for rescuing and starting the plot.
(12) Thorn. This character is bothersome, a thorn in the Main Character’s side. I want to be clear that it isn’t the Antagonist. In the Harry Potter books, it’s more like Draco than Voldemort. The Thorn character can be the annoyingly nosy neighbor who offers all kinds of outlandish theories and red herrings to the detective; it can be the newspaperman who prints a story that unwittingly alerts a criminal to the movements of Scotland Yard. The Thorn can stymie the Main Character at various points, can add tension to a subplot, and can contribute to the main struggle between the Protagonist and Antagonist. And these thorns can be incredibly engaging characters; when well drawn, they create annoyance and frustration in us and therefore engage our sympathies even more with the Main Character.
(13) Could-Have-Been. This is Cho in Harry Potter. These Could-Have-Beens have the significant value in that they present other options, and can keep the plot from feeling inevitable; as such, they can shore up suspense. These characters are useful in another way, for often they show that a MC isn’t going to get everything he wants. (That’s a danger for books … when a protagonist can have her cake and eat it too.) A subcategory of the Could-Have-Been is the Fateful Warning—what the MC might be or become if circumstances were different. In Les Miserables, Fantine is who Cosette might have become, if Jean ValJean hadn’t intervened.
(14) Betrayer. This character is one of the heavy hitters. He betrays the Main Character in a way that pulls the rug out from under her, causes the Main Character to distrust her own judgment, and throws into jeopardy our interpretations of all that we’ve read so far. This is—interestingly—also Cho in Harry Potter. Judas is perhaps the original betrayer. In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bibbitt betrays McMurphy to Nurse Rached, who has longed to punish McMurphy, and she can finally justify giving him the lobotomy. In the third book of The Hunger Games trilogy, this is President Alma Coin, who claims to want democracy but turns out to be as power-hungry as Snow at the end. The betrayer is a very powerful Secondary Character, for betrayal can bring up feelings in your Main Character of injustice, abandonment, and loss--three of the big ones.
(15) The Dead Body (aka “the red shirt”) Often the dead body has a significant backstory. That’s why he ends up dead, even if it’s on page 5. I put this Secondary Character last, but if you are writing a murder mystery, the dead body is in many ways the most important Secondary Character, even if he never appears alive. A dead body on page 5 means the entire rest of the book is the story of discovering the story before the book begins, which is how he got there in the first place. Why him, of all people?
I want to share that the Dead Body is the one character I have found I cannot shortchange when it comes to rounding him out. As I was writing TRACE, I must have written twenty pages from Edwin’s perspective, about his childhood, his schooling, his art, his forging, his relationship with his sister and with his teachers, and his time in jail and the opium dens. He had his own timeline, separate from the whole rest of my book, on my wall. If you are writing a murder mystery, I would say this Secondary is the heart of your backstory, and in my experience, I’ve found that spending a lot of time on The Dead Body is crucial.
So those are my 15. Of course, these distinctions are sort of artificial. As this list suggests, often a Secondary Character will play more than one role—and generally that’s efficient so far as plot goes, and it organically adds complexity to your characters. This multiplicity finds it natural echo in real life, for none of us play only one role in our lives either.
One final NOTE: If you give someone a name, they need a role, even if just a small one. Don’t name characters if they’re not going to do anything that either advances the plot or illuminates another character. The barista at the coffee shop can be elided: like the servants sometimes in Austen, “the tea was brought in.”
For more about Secondary Characters, stay tuned! I'll be back!