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Secondary Characters Are Important Too

Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is of “secondary character.” And the description goes like this:

This is any character that takes a prominent role in the story but doesn’t get to tell it from his or her perspective.

These figures can and usually will voice their thoughts or show their feelings with actions or expressions. But these are all relayed via the main character’s perspective.

A secondary character can be the best friend, the villain, a mentor, a parent or any other man, woman, boy, girl, animal or entity that makes its presence known significantly enough to leave an indent on the story line.

Here are just a few famous secondary characters I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Best Friends: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. For anyone who hasn’t read the books, these two characters are encouragements, helpmates and best friends to main character Harry Potter. They tell him when he’s being arrogant. They offer useful insights into the world of wizarding. And they journey with him on his epic quest to defeat Voldemort. Incidentally, Harry Potter is so well-established that Microsoft Word acknowledges “Voldemort” as a verifiable name. You know you’ve made it when Bill Gates’ legacy gives you the all-clear.

  • Love Interest: Ned Nickerson. I know I’m totally dating myself here, but when I was growing up, I was a big fan of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Both were mystery series, with the protagonists being the two sons of a respective detective, and a strawberry-blond teenaged sleuth, respectively. Why did I mention Nancy Drew’s looks and not the Hardy Boys? That’s because every single book made sure to mention her strawberry-blond hair. There was never any derivation in the description. So after reading dozens and dozens of these books, her looks are solidified in my brain. In the world of Nancy Drew, the main character had a boyfriend, Ned, who made a regular appearance, though I can’t for the life of me remember what color hair he had. I want to say it was blondish too though, rather like Barbie and Ken or something. Regardless, he was always there for Nancy when she needed him, offering insights or convenient excuses or comfort along the way.

  • Villain: Traveling even further back in time to a fantasy classic, we have the bad guy from The Lord of the Rings. The United Kingdom’s Telegraph newspaper captured his literary existence this way: “Withering, implacable, burning, the unsleeping eye of Sauron scours Middle Earth ceaselessly for the Ring. ‘The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent; and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.’ Things would all have been so different if Middle Earth had Optrex.”

Optrex is apparently an eye spray sold in Britain. So kudos to the Telegraph for a really entertaining perspective into the Lord of the Rings universe. And also kudos for its perfect portrayal of a secondary character: “Things would all have been so different if…” Bad guy, good guy or complicated guy, secondary characters change something about the story, whether by way of another character or in the whole entire plot.

I’m sitting in an airport right now, trying not to waste my computer or phone batteries, so I’m afraid those are the only examples you’re going to get out of me right now. But hopefully they suffice.

What secondary characters boil down to are a single step down from a main character. Without them, the story line has a very good chance of being one giant, boring monologue or some other kind of narrative not worth reading.

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