Revision stage part three: secondary and tertiary characters
Last week, we talked about revising your main character and in part one, we discussed revising the exposition, climax, and denouement. Your main character has a role it must fulfill, but so do your secondary and tertiary characters, or as others call them, supporting and minor characters. I like numbers, so I’m using the former.
These two categories of characters are important, but they have their own roles. The most important thing to consider when revising your story is whether or not you’re giving these characters too much attention. Many books I’ve edited have put too much emphasis on the back story or mind of a secondary character, and sometimes even a tertiary character. It dilutes a story, and it takes the reader down side streets, away from the plot and down an alley they might not want to go down. What you might consider necessary, you can easily chop when you discover that without that information, the plot doesn’t change. It might reduce what the reader knows about a character, but what does that knowledge do? Justify something? Some information is fine and sometimes essential, but it’s your job to weed out what is and isn’t necessary to keep. For now.
Secondary characters (supporting characters)
Don’t take this character lightly. The MC’s little brother, the MC’s boyfriend or girlfriend, etc. are all secondary characters. Really, a secondary character can be as prominent in the story as the main character. They can be in every place the main character is if that’s their role. They don’t drive the story forward, but they are an important part of it.
Your secondary character needs as much back story as your main character. They both need things they want, demand, fear, etc. Your secondary character is a person, too. Make them real. You can likely re-read the main character tab and follow the same rules for your secondary character, but I want to add something.
Why are these characters there?
Don’t put these characters in the path just because they’re convenient. Why are they there? What use or purpose do they have? Secondary characters are strong additions to a story, so if they serve no purpose other than to complement your main character, consider changing their role. These are strong characters, and they need a higher place than a cameo, which is what a tertiary character would be.
If you remove one of these characters, what happens to the story? Does it change much? You see, the idea of removing a character is not a fun one, but many times, when you remove something unnecessary, a deeper understanding of a story rises. The reader doesn’t often see past the surface if they’re not asked to, so if you fill your surface with all these unnecessary scenes and characters, that’s all your reader ever sees. So, when the book is done, it’s decent. There isn’t a true, powerful image, theme, or purpose fulfilled in their minds, and there isn’t as much closure as there might have been. If you muddy the surface of a pond, you can’t see the bigger fish that swim along the bottom.
What if I don’t need their back story?
I might have mentioned this when I discussed main characters, but if your character doesn’t have a past, present, and aspirations for their future (or no aspirations if that’s who they are), your character is flat. You can excuse things they do because you don’t even know them. If you didn’t read last week’s post, it’s like watching a stranger argue with someone. Since you don’t know them, that’s immediately what you see about them in what you consider their normal state. Then, if they quickly change moods and start acting differently, you might assume it’s normal for them to do so. This is where judgment comes into play.
So, your character needs that back story. Not necessarily for the story your writing but for their foundation as a character. When you have that, your revision stage will involve a lot of confirmation.
Would SC1 (secondary character 1) do this? Is this how SC3 would react? What if I take this out. Will SC2 still seem too fickle?
Imagine them as you would a good friend. You can usually determine what is out of place. You know their habits and typical reactions to their environment. You want this with your secondary characters as well as your main(s).
How can I make them stronger without including so much backstory?
Your secondary characters are not main characters, so don’t treat them like it. This is hard to define when I’m telling you to give them as much strength as your MC, but while that’s true, you don’t need to give them as much attention in the story itself.
A strong character can be defined by actions as much as they can a story. We don’t need to know what happened to your secondary character in their childhood or past life. Don’t think your secondary characters are weak just because we know little about them as readers. If you pay attention to who they are, we will know it based on the consistency and inconsistencies we discover while reading.
Here are a few things you can look out for and improve upon to make your SC(s) stronger:
- Reactions. If they act differently in the same situation, the reader is looking for a reason why. Since they aren’t likely to know their whole life story, it may be assumed your SC is simply weak and fickle, and they are easily influenced.
- Interactions. How they interact with your MC might be different from how they interact with others.
- Dialogue. If they use the same dialect or syntax as your main character, they won’t seem unique, and neither will your writing (in terms of dialogue). You don’t have to give them any accent, exactly, but listen to others talk. Listen to their word choices and filler words and the structure of their sentences when they speak. You’ll hear a difference.
- Plot. While they don’t directly affect the plot like the MC does, your SCs will have an effect. Without them, the story won’t be the same, so make sure they have enough impact that they would be missed otherwise.
- Spotlight. How much ink do they get? Am I as the reader going to struggle with whose story I’m reading? Don’t tell me about this secondary character if I don’t truly need to know for the story to continue. If an SC is abusive to his girlfriend, I don’t need to know that he was abused in his past. Don’t try to justify his actions for the sake of justifying his actions. Don’t take the story down a temporary path only to get back on it later. Stay on one path. If it doesn’t drive the story you’re writing, it can probably go.
What if my story has a theme and the SC is part of it?
I’ll sum this up. Your SC will affect the plot, but they won’t be the focal point of the story. So, if you have a theme, your SC will be essential to driving that theme, because a theme is a hidden piece of the story that readers must uncover on their own. In Harry Potter, friendship was a huge theme, but how would it have translated if Hermione and Ron weren’t there? It wouldn’t have. It could be argued that they are main characters, but their supporting roles are important to driving the theme, and if you can imagine them as secondary—especially if you only note their role in the movies—you can still identify how powerful a role they played in producing a theme without being the center of the story.
Tertiary characters (minor characters)
People don’t often talk about these because they aren’t a big deal, usually. They’re the teacher in fifth period or the mailman who whistles when he walks down the street or the neighbor whose face you never see. They seem unnecessary, but their role is to exist in a world with life. Without them, the mind is isolated. Typing this right now, I hear the car engines revving slightly when the light turns green, a few dogs barking when their owners pass my window. This noise exists everywhere. Even in your story. My cat is resting in her tree behind me, her silence telling me she is watching over my shoulder, contemplating whether to jump on my keyboard and type her own post. This makes my location real, and now that I’ve typed it, you can imagine me typing better than you were before I mentioned anything about my setting.
They add color to a story.
Little things add to a story. They help build a character. You have your foundation and your supports and walls, but let your tertiary characters be your paint and decor. They’re not absolutely necessary, but they help a place feel like a home. They’ll help your story feel real. Don’t ignore these people. You don’t exactly need elaborate pasts outlined, though you can if you want. Just don’t include them in the story. These characters just need a temporary purpose and presence. The mailman loves to sing, my cat loves to play rough, the teacher loves to teach but hates children and misses her husband who was deployed. Who are these people as we must know them? If they are going to do something, why? If they’re going to say something, how would they say it?
Look back on these things in your writing, and determine what might belong and what might not. You’ll be surprised what unnecessary things might have been written and how confusing it can make the storyline as a whole.
Do not give them more presence than they’re worth.
Main characters need their presence, and even secondary characters need a presence, but tertiary characters are like the twigs on the end of branches. They’re there for the leaves to grow, and they hide beneath them. Lots of analogies, I know. But, don’t share their life story like you could with your MC or possibly SC if that one is relevant. Don’t give them their own perspective. Don’t give them their own chapter.
If you see this in your story, it’s pretty safe to say you can cut it. If your tertiary character has a great story, awesome. Write another book. Don’t try to include every idea you have in this one. Tertiary characters are meant to add to the story’s aesthetic and realistic value more than they are there to add to the plot or development of the story itself. Now, they do add little things but not enough for them to be a large presence in the story.
We discussed a lot about the characters, but there’s a little more that will go into developing your characters as we discuss flashbacks and back story. You might have written too much, or maybe you didn’t write enough. A few tips will help you start the search for that answer.