In addition to young adult and middle grade literature, I enjoy reading the occasional fantasy/paranormal/horror/sci-fi novel (often not reviewed here…only a few fantasy and paranormal books see reviews on this site). When contacted about hosting a guest post as part of a blog tour for author J. G. Faherty’s newest book The Burning Time I said sure! The book sounds deliciously creepy and could be worth a venture out of young adult and middle grade land for a bit of a good scare.
Please welcome author J. G. Faherty to Escape Through the Pages!
The Importance of Secondary Characters in Novels
In any book you read, there are primary characters (usually the antagonist and protagonist) and the secondary characters. Now, when people talk about the books they’ve written or read, most of the time they talk about the primary characters. And that makes sense; after all, these are the characters about whom the main plots revolve.
But secondary characters are important, too; sometimes nearly as important as the primary characters. These are the characters who interact with the main characters, who do the things the main characters can’t – die, get attacked by monsters, see the things that get reported to the main characters, create the setting in which the main characters exist.
Take Stephen King’s IT for example. The main characters are the group of friends and Pennywise the Clown. But look at all the secondary characters and the roles they play. Everyone from the police to the parents to the little brother who dies at the beginning to older kids who torment the main characters. These individuals shape not only the main characters as they grow up, but also the events that happen in the town. Without them, the story would be nothing.
However, secondary characters can’t exist just to be fodder for death-dealing monsters. They’re not nameless redshirts who can be sacrificed to move the story forward. They need personalities, back stories. A reader has to at least be interested in them, and hopefully care about them. That’s what makes their perils and experiences and deaths powerful.
In my most recent novel The Burning Time, I use a host of secondary characters. Some might even argue that a couple of them, Danni and Mitch, are main characters, but I would disagree. John Root and Cyrus Christian are the only two main characters, despite the amount of time I devout to Danni, Mitch, and Billy Ray. Those three are secondary characters, as is the police chief, and it is because I devote time to them, create believable personalities that people will either care for or possibly hate, that those characters work. They need to be three-dimensional, as real as the hero and villain, in order for the story to work. So Billy Ray becomes more than just a wanderer who happens into town, Danni becomes more than just a cardboard love interest for John, and Mitch is more than just the annoying kid brother of Danni. They each have important roles to play in terms of moving the plot forward.
In Carnival of Fear, I tried to create a cast of characters that all received equal time, a plethora of main characters, if you will. This was because I wanted the emotional impact of killing people who the reader had grown to love, had expected to live. While I dipped into the stereotype pool (jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, stoners, etc.), I deliberately put different spins on a lot of their personalities so that readers couldn’t assume who would die first. Unlike slasher films or books, where you can almost instantly tell what order the people will die in, I really mixed things up, so that characters people thought were main characters turned out to be secondary, and vice versa, based on who survives and who helps the others survive. Telling the story from multiple viewpoints besides the hero’s also helped keep readers on their toes.
So the next time you are reading a book or watching a movie, pay attention to the secondary characters, the ones who help the hero or take the bullet (or claw) meant for him.
Sometimes they are the real stars of the story.
JG Faherty is the author of Cemetery Club, Carnival of Fear, The Cold Spot, He Waits, and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Ghosts of Coronado Bay. His latest novel, The Burning Time, comes out Jan. 18. Visit him at http://www.jgfaherty.com, http://www.facebook.com/jgfaherty, http://www.twitter.com/jgfaherty, or http://www.aboutme.com/jgfaherty.