Support System — Secondary Characters
By Jeff Salter
We’re discussing supporting characters and/or subplots this week. Not sure why I was surprised that Patricia Kiyono’s Monday post would explain an approach so close to my own, in many respects. As I’ve done at least once before, I found Patricia’s presentation so complete and organized that I’m borrowing some of her insight and referring to her text. For anyone truly interested in this topic, please go back and read all the posts for this week.
As Patricia said, our featured players don’t work alone — their supporting casts are important to the plot. Patricia’s are broken down in to Helpers, Mentors, and Devil’s Advocates. I have some of all of those, but I group them a bit differently.
In my own stories, the secondary characters are also there for several specific reasons, of course. Sometimes all I need is what I call a “walk-on” player to come in, deliver a line the reader needs to see (or the hero/heroine needs to hear), and then exit. On a few occasions, these walk-on players impressed me so much that I agreed when they begged to be included in additional scenes. One example is Jason’s mother in my series, “Amanda Moore or Less”. Mrs. Stewart ended up playing a significant role in “Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold”. [So in this instance, my walk-on character served as the kind of mentor Patty described.] Another walk-on player who impressed me enough to get more scenes was Kristen’s brother Eric Prima, in “Rescued By That New Guy in Town.” I only needed Eric for a few lines and a bit of humor, but he stuck around to play an important role in helping Kris understand what Ryan Hazzard was probably thinking.
I liked Eric so well, that I featured him (and his girlfriend) as the most significant character – other than the heroine and hero – in my recently published novella, “One Simple Favor”.
In nearly every one of my stories, the hero / heroine has a best friend. [This character often functions as – in Patricia’s blog – the helper, but sometimes as the mentor and occasionally as the devil’s advocate.] My primary use of the BF is to: (1) relay to the reader additional info/insight about the hero/heroine, (2) give the hero/heroine a sounding board… so they’re not just sitting there with paragraphs of internal thoughts, (3) to prod the hero/heroine to action, when that’s needed, (4) to caution the hero/heroine to slow down or reconsider, or (5) to verbalize the reader’s own skepticism or warning.
That last one – (5) – is particularly important in my screwball comedies, because the characters often find themselves in unbelievable situations and the reader needs someone to agree with him/her that these screwball circumstances are totally bizarre. Once that’s out of the bag, hopefully the reader can relax and enjoy the rest of that screwball ride.
Aunt or Uncle
In several of my stories, the hero/heroine has an aunt or uncle who plays (in part) the role of mentor, as described by Patricia. Sometimes I use this aunt/uncle only to give the h/h a local base or provide some childhood background (for the reader’s benefit). Occasionally the aunt/uncle provides information about the situation (or its history) which the reader needs… instead of me having a disruptive info dump. Sometimes the aunt/uncle serves as the advisor or comforter… but occasionally this aunt/uncle serves a unique role in helping the hero understand the heroine (or vice versa).
At other times, this aunt/uncle is used in one of the five roles I listed above for the best friend. For example, in cases where the h/h’s best friend is too flighty to give good advice or not terribly effective at providing comfort, the aunt/uncle might be needed to provide those services. Just as the best friend sometimes serves in my stories as the devil’s advocate… likewise it is occasionally the aunt/uncle who fills that role. My decision depends partly on the length of the story, the complexity of the plot, the duration of the plot’s timeline, how many characters are involved, etc. In a short novella, for example, I may have one supporting character providing several functions that might require multiple characters in a longer work.
I guess the only category Patricia uses which I don’t reflect much in my own stories is that of children. Of my completed stories so far – 11 novels and 4 novellas – the only young person (I can remember) is a 16 year old granddaughter of one of the primary supporting characters in Called to Arms Again. Initially I needed this girl only to deliver one important emotional line near the end, but after I placed her there, I realized I had to go back and give her at least a couple of foundational scenes earlier in the text. And, as I’ve found with other walk-ons, this girl became involved with several touching scenes and was the main character who understood technology enough to provide a useful service to the plot at one point.
As a reader, what do you look for in a support cast? If you’re also a writer, how do you approach your supporting characters?
Read the other posts this week
I really do hope you check out all the blogs this week. This is a very important topic and we have some very creative folks here at 4F1H.
Here’s the link to Patricia’s post: