Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Important Role of Secondary Characters

“His name is Romeo, and a Montegue;
The only son of your great enemy.”

Nurse warning Juliet, and illuminating the crux of the conflict for the audience
Act I, scene v

(Painting "The Storm", by Wlliam Dyce depicting King Lear and secondary character, The Fool)

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with secondary characters of every sort and variety. For every towering, iconic protagonist, there is a secondary character who aids and abets the action. Hamlet has Horatio; Prince Hal has Falstaff; Juliet has Nurse; Prospero has Caliban; Portia has Bassanio and the list goes on.

Secondary characters play many roles in fiction. Mentor, confessor, guardian, teacher, foil, sounding board, catalyst, muse: They may be present in the guise of friend or foe, parent or sibling, loved one, stranger or servant.

Use of a secondary character offers an author a wealth of possibilities. Your hero’s best friend can be the voice of reason that helps the volatile hero work through a crisis. Your heroine’s big sister can act as confidant to help her make relationship decisions. In these roles they allow a further exploration and exposure of the protagonists’ thinking and emotions, without the “telling” worry. Perhaps an abusive parent allows the author to illustrate the difficult times our hero has risen above, illustrating his fortitude and strength without blatantly hammering the point. A teacher’s wisdom lets us be privy to a character’s struggle and growth. A secondary character’s predicament allows an opportunity for a hero or heroine to show their loyalty, bravery or willingness to put themselves in danger for a friend.

But while we can use these characters to great advantage, there are also pitfalls inherent in who you populate your stories with.

If you fill a story with a gallery of innocuous secondary characters who are little more than window dressing and are either duplicative of, or of no value to, a protagonist, it means they probably shouldn’t be there.

Certainly, too, the “chorus”, or tertiary background characters used to create a sense of time, and place and social background are valuable. But keeping their participation appropriate is important.

And the important role played by secondary characters brings up the flip side of the problem. Rather than ineffective secondary characters, you have the potential problem of a secondary character taking center stage and usurping the limelight from the protagonists. This effectively nullifies the importance of the hero or heroine as well as distracting the reader. There are many authors who very effectively straddle this fine line, creating secondary characters who both know their place, but who are rich, complex and human. They appeal to readers, and the author, even while they ultimately allow the primary characters their moment in the sun. We’ve seen this happen frequently enough when a character is so appealing he or she ultimately grows into the protagonist of their own story, bringing in those fans who enjoyed the character in a supporting role in a prior book.

A slightly different problem is creating secondary characters so strong or superior that the protagonist in question pales in comparison. An non-romance example might be Melanie and Scarlett. While Scarlett was admirably tenacious and determined, Melanie far outshone her in the admirable qualities we imbue our heroes and heroines with. Loyalty, gentle courage, honesty, morality are all Melanie traits but Scarlett? Well, not so much …

Look at any of the great stories and you will find examples of these vital characters and the authors’ deft use of them. Beyond Shakespeare’s own cadre of the good, the bad, the wise, funny, and ugly, and more accessible to us, would be the supporting actors in television and film.

Harry Potter is surrounded with classic secondary characters, from Dumbledore (mentor, guide) to Lucius Malfoy (catalyst). Likewise, Frodo in Lord of the Rings learns from Gandalf and he is provided (as are we, the audience) a glimpse of what might come to pass in the example of the obsessed, grotesque Gollum.

Buffy has her team of seconds, from clowns to BFF.

Antihero Dr. Gregory House has his conscience and voice of reason in the form of Dr. James Wilson, and takes on the role of mentor to the changing cast of residents.

Andy Griffith had Aunt Bea, Goober and Gomer, the classic sidekick Deputy Barney Fife, as well as Opie – his parental interactions with Opie allow us to see Andy’s sterling qualities as parent and teacher.

Superman had Perry White, and Lois and Jimmy Olsen were the frequent catalysts (read: victim needing rescue from heinous antagonists) in providing the superhero plenty of opportunities to exhibit his super-hero-ness.

Many actors today have honed the skill of playing the supporting cast member to the hero and as such frequently are seen in those roles. John Goodman, for example, supporting not only Dennis Quaid and Al Pacino, but Roseann herself.

TV, film, Shakespeare, other novels – all offer stellar opportunities to study the role these supporting characters play, and how to craft them effectively. How to make them rich, fully-fleshed, playing his or her role to perfection while not encroaching into the protagonists’ territory, can be learned from reading any good romance novel.

And, as always, from the dramatic canon of my fave, Tennessee Williams, I have a perfect example of the vital secondary character, whose presence effects all of the protagonists in one important way or another and leads them to decisions and actions that rock their world. He is not even given a name, but he is the human interjection that changes everything. He is The Gentleman Caller, and when he joins the action among Laura Wingfield, her brother Tom, and faded Southern Belle, Amanda, upheaval ensues.

So, next time you are reading a book, give the secondary characters some extra attention. What is their role in the story? How does the author utilize them to good effect to bolster how we see the hero and heroine, and how their presence impacts the storyline?

Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!—
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th' observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me,
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Ophelia’s monologue following confrontation with Hamlet wherein she shares the dastardly change that has overtaken her beloved.

Act 3 scene 1