This week, my husband and I decided to go see Maleficent. I was interested to see how they would turn the fairy tale upside down. As I’ve said before, I love retellings of fairy tales, and I’ve seen it done quite well.
As we watched, especially near the end, there was one thing that really bothered me. It wasn’t anything major, or anything that really spoiled the movie, but it was one that’s kept me thinking for a while. There was a character in the movie who had a lot of potential. He was in almost every scene. Yet he did absolutely nothing for the plot. He was a fluff character who sat back and watched everything else happen.
I’m talking about the crow. Okay, I know he played little part in the actual movie as well, but he had so much potential. He was the one there as Maleficent was learning to like the ‘little beastie’ and he was the only one who was willing to talk back to her when he thought she’d done something wrong. With just a little creativity, I think he could have been more than just a flat secondary character.
So what is the importance of secondary characters? Are they there to support the main character? Provide guidance? Maybe even conflict.
As I look through the different WIPs that I’m working on, I’ve started to really look at those secondary characters and try to determine exactly what their purpose is. I’ve come up with three things that I think are necessary for a secondary character to be round and to really draw the reader in.
1. A secondary character must have a role in the story.
I guess that should be pretty self-explanatory. If there’s no reason for them to be there, then why are they there? Except I know I’ve seen and read many stories where there are secondary characters who are only there for filler. I’ve even created characters like that. In The Orphans of Jadox, there are quite a few orphans running around. Though they play a part, most didn’t have a role in the story, other than to show that there were children. I ended up cutting five of them, and it didn’t even affect the story.
In Maleficent, the crow really didn’t have a role. He was probably there just because there was a crow in the original movie. If he had been deleted from the story, I think everything would have been exactly the same. Honestly, she could have been speaking to herself with all the interaction that they had.
2. A secondary character must move the plot forward.
Now this may sound similar to point number one, but here’s the difference. You can have a character in the story, who has a role (father, boss, child, etc) but as much as they play a role, they don’t do anything for the plot. It’s like taking the scenic route when you want to get to your destination.
I’ll give another example. I had a character who was sold as a servant and ended up learning to sew. The seamstress taught her everything she knew, and despite all odds, they became friends. Then she was sold again, and she never saw the seamstress after that. I had a beta call me out on that. She told me that unless my character needed to use her sewing skills in the final conflict, the entire side plot didn’t do anything for the story. Did she have a role? Yes. She taught my main character, they formed a friendship. Yet, she did nothing for the story and plot itself.
3. A secondary character needs to have motivation of their own.
I think this is the most important. Everyone has some purpose for existing. Even if the story is told from the main character’s point of view, that doesn’t mean that every character within the story doesn’t have their own agenda.
I love bringing up Wreck it Ralph for that exact reason. You’ve got the bad guy, Ralph, who wants to get a medal. He’s the main character. But all of the secondary characters have their own agendas too. Finding the cybug. Winning a race. Saving his game. Their paths intersect, and every interaction is propelled forward by each of their individual desires. Having a secondary character there just to help the main character doesn’t help either of them. Give them a reason to do what they do.
Anything else you’d add to the list? What secondary characters do you love?