April 20, 2018

The Breathtaking Power of Secondary Characters

By Ed Protzel

Do you feel blocked because your hero and plot are played out? Simply need to add power and verisimilitude to your completed work? Secondary characters can inject lightning into your novel, screenplay, or short story when you adopt some of these principles and secrets.

The Hero’s Reflection & Subplots
The most basic minor character is the hero’s reflection: a best friend, spouse, pal, or loved one. Of course, the reflection gives the hero a sounding board, enabling the writer to reveal the hero’s character, motives, and inner thoughts dramatically and economically, without introspective narratives. Further, because the reflection closely parallels the hero, if you put him/her in the same or a similar situation as the hero, you’ve created a viable subplot. Note how Shakespeare uses minor characters and subplots in every play—fantastic! A good subplot will not only give depth to your themes, but also can add humor and irony to a dramatic story, poignancy to a comedy, and, importantly, conflict.

Juice it Up
For dramatic purposes, you want to increase the conflict in every scene to juice them up, right? To succeed, your reflection should be the relative opposite of the hero. In the historical novels of my DarkHorse Trilogy, I gave my protagonist, Durksen Hurst, two major reflections, creating a dramatic triangle of allies who are always in intense conflict. Durk is a creative hustler, prone to wild schemes. He secretly partners with a group of escaped slaves, including a distrustful, angry Isaac, who expresses what the others are only thinking. Standing between these two combatants, representing reason, is wise Big Josh, the natural leader of the group. Every development scene in the novels is, thus, made dynamic.

Fueling the Secondary Character
If a secondary character doesn’t intertwine with the hero, however, it won’t work.
The more functions your secondary character serves the better; the trick is to combine them. For example, early in the next novel (Something in Madness, set in post-Civil War Mississippi), one of Durk’s partners, Long Lou, sets out to find his family, as many freedmen did, creating a poignant scene. Later, I wanted to illustrate the Vagrancy laws in the South’s Black Codes, where freedmen were arrested on the roads, fined, and their fines auctioned off to planters seeking a supply of labor. It was slavery without the name.

How best to illuminate this injustice? At first, I thought about creating a new minor character who would be auctioned off. Instead, I had Durk discover that his friend, Lou, had been scooped up and was being auctioned off to the novel’s ruthless antagonist, a racist with a vendetta against Durk.

Suddenly, by combining the two minor characters into the person of Lou, an illustrative event is transformed into a major conflict between the primary characters, forcing a clash that must be resolved immediately. Thus, a plot point with innumerable possibilities is born!

Want to enliven your tale? Perhaps rethinking a minor character or two can make your work more emotionally charged and meaningful.
Ed Protzel lives in St. Louis, Mo., where he writes imaginative fiction filled with plot twists you won’t see coming. Following years as a screenwriter, Ed turned to novels after earning a master’s in English literature/creative writing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is the author of the Civil War-era DarkHorse Trilogy: The Lies That Bind (antebellum Mississippi), Honor Among Outcasts (Civil War Missouri), and next year Something in Madness (Reconstruction Mississippi). Look for Ed’s futuristic mystery/thriller, The Antiquities Dealer, coming soon. Connect with Ed:
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