By Roger Johns
In the early days of my writing journey, I was repeatedly cautioned to restrain my secondary characters because they had a tendency to upstage my principals. I tried, but soon became convinced the greater danger came from underutilized secondary characters that didn’t sufficiently challenge my main character, leaving her less realized and less interesting than she had the potential to be.
As any writer who has ever had a secondary character steal a scene can tell you, the upstaging problem can definitely be a real problem. It was just that, for me, reining in my secondary characters was the wrong approach. Working my way through the nth draft of my first book, I came to believe that if a support character was able to hog the limelight, it meant the main character was too weak.
Because I was writing what I envisioned as series fiction, having a cast of vibrant secondary characters was a must, so the upstaging problem would forever lurk in the wings. This sent me is search of a reliable solution with concrete steps that I could follow, over and over.
After a bit of trial and error, I found something that works for me and my characters. I identify, ahead of time, something specific that readers need to learn about the principal from a given scene, and I structure the secondary character’s actions to serve as a springboard or provocation for that.
For example, in my second book, River of Secrets, my main character, female Baton Rouge homicide detective Wallace Hartman, appears in several scenes with Melissa Voorhees, a small-town police chief with a big personality. Not surprisingly, Melissa often makes a bid for center stage. To keep things balanced without holding Melissa back, I made her the opposite of Wallace in ways that require Wallace to demonstrate specific traits and capabilities.
Where Wallace can be a bit prim, Melissa is earthy, so readers see Wallace react to conversations and situations that push the edges of her comfort zone. When Wallace’s logical side keeps her from seeing the whole picture, Melissa introduces an emotional dimension to the scene and Wallace shows she’s capable of stretching to incorporate both modes of understanding into her work. And, when Melissa has a moment of weakness, Wallace is strong for her. Owing to a painful episode in her past, Wallace can be reluctant to indulge her softer side. But, after Melissa proves she’s a true friend and circumstances cause her to suffer, Wallace displays her nurturing side by helping Melissa deal with some heartbreaking news.
Setting a specific goal for how the secondary characters are going to enhance the reader’s understanding of the principal, and tailoring their actions to bring this about, helps me keep the principal at the center of attention without having to dial back the secondary characters actions or personality.
ROGER JOHNS is a former corporate lawyer and retired college professor, and he is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books: Dark River Rising (2017) and River of Secrets (2018). He is the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective·Mystery Category), a 2018 Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice Award nominee, a finalist for the 2018 Silver Falchion Award for best police procedural, runner-up for the 2019 Frank Yerby Fiction Award, the 2019 JKS Communications Author-in-Residence, and a 2019 Georgia Author of the Year nominee (Detective·Mystery Category). His articles and interviews about writing and the writing life have appeared in Career Author, Criminal Element, Killer Nashville Articles, the Southern Literary Review, and Southern Writers Magazine. Roger belongs to the Atlanta Writers Club, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America. With several other crime fiction writers, he co-authors the Murder Books blog at www.murder-books.com. Roger grew up in Louisiana and now lives in Georgia. Visit him at his website: www.rogerjohnsbooks.com, on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RogerJohnsBooks/, and on Twitter: @rogerjohns10