Every so often it's a good idea to take a step back and do some serious analysis. (Actually, it's a good idea to do this regularly...) This week's
victim subject: secondary
In fact, I started off by analyzing my very favorite books in an attempt to figure out why I love them as I do. Main characters, of course, were high on the list, as was plot and setting and prose quality. Yet I was surprised by the fifth top 5 characteristic: secondary characters. Honestly, I couldn't rank these things in order. Because, yes, Anne of Green Gables wouldn't be Anne of Green Gables without, well, Anne or Green Gables—but what would it be without Gilbert Blythe? What would Harry Potter be without the Weasleys? What would Pride and Prejudice be without Mr. Collins?
They'd be soulless, robot-ish creatures, in my opinion, something like the literary equivalent of zombies. (Hmm, if only they knew all they had to do to achieve Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was take out a few secondary characters? ;)
Right now I'm at the point in my new WIP where I'm creating a bunch of secondaries. It's a daunting task—1st, because I know how important it is, and 2nd, because the plot forces about eight people onto the stage/page at the same time. I was grinding my teeth over it last night, but I've realized it's a good thing. Whereas with slow intros, there's a temptation to under-develop secondaries, it's impossible when a lot appear at once. They have to be unique, or the reader will drop the book and run while they can.
Onward, then, to my completely intuited (fancy for made-up) list of secondary-character-creating essentials:
1. Make them unique. Furthermore, make them unique on the surface. Readers don't have time to figure out that Jane prefers chocolate ice cream while Jill prefers cake, but they'll notice if Jane carries a jump rope around with her and Jill overindulges in her use of the word “like.” (Similarly, don't ever give them names that sound as alike as Jane and Jill if you can help it!)
2. Know what they look like, then only tell the important details. Particularly, be careful not to spend too much time on eye color unless it's important...because noticing eye color makes a statement. Most people won't make direct eye contact with everyone in a group. (Conversely, if you're writing YA and want to subtly convey that a MC is attracted to someone, go ahead and dwell on the eyes.)
3.Think carefully about speech patterns. Also, speech tendencies. In real life, some people will do most of the talking and some are content to fade into the background.
4. Ask yourself: can I group any characters together to make them less confusing? (The reason there are so many twins in literature.)
5. Be careful of being too random. I know this seems to counteract everything I just said, but do remember that if every character has a different eye color, ethnicity, etc. it will seem terribly contrived.
6. Finally, remember that every secondary character is the hero of his or her own story. Even though most of it won't come into your book, you should know all those stories. Take the time to create these characters as you would your main character, and it will always show.
I'll finish up with a list of my favorite secondaries (in no particular order—and these are just the recently analyzed ones), and you can tell me who yours are in the comments!
Gilbert, Diana, Matthew, Mrs. Lynde, Phillipa, Davy, Walter, and Faith, from various Anne books
Ilse, from Emily of New Moon
Every secondary character Austen or Rowling or Dickens ever wrote
Merry and Pippin, from The Lord of the Rings
Puddleglum and Reepicheep, from The Chronicles of Narnia
Pellinore, from The Once and Future King
Spiller, from The Borrowers series
Toots, from The Faerie Ring
Razo, from The Goose Girl
Piper, from Al Capone Does My Shirts
Mr. and Mrs. Owens, from The Graveyard Book