Where would Scarlet be without Melanie? Harry Potter without Ron Weasely? Luke Skywalker without Han Solo? Skipper without Gilligan? I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Now and then our heroes and heroines…well… get by with a little help from their friends.
Call them what you want: the best friend, second fiddle, second banana or sidekick, but I like to think of these characters as seasoning—too much can ruin the taste, but the right amount can truly enhance the flavor and heighten the experience. Whether you love or hate creating them, secondary characters are a vital part of your hero and heroine’s journey.
Maybe what makes these characters so much fun—to writers and readers alike—is the freedom they offer. Since they don’t have to be heroic, there’s no pressure to make them perfect. In fact, they can be as delightfully flawed as your imagination will allow.
A lot has been said about whether it’s okay to use the PV of a secondary, and when it’s appropriate. I can only offer my take on it, and my preference for what we see in the historical department. But here it is:
Secondary characters are a necessary tool to impart information to the reader. Most often this is done through dialogue and interactions with the hero or heroine –we can learn a lot about our characters by who they call friend, after all. It’s not often, but there are times when our second fiddle needs to step up to the plate. A case in point: our heroine has been kidnapped by the villain (whose PV it is appropriate to use) and our hero has been knocked unconscious. Who is going to drive the story? Enter the second banana. Or—our heroine is delirious with a fever and our hero is miles away. Who will carry the next scene forward? Cue the sidekick.
When is it not okay to use a secondary PV? When your hero or heroine is present in the scene. If they are present, alert and conscious, they really should be the focal point-- after all they’re the star of the show. (Again, this is only my take on the use of secondary PV’s, other editors may feel differently. If you’re currently working with an editor, it’s a good idea to ask his or her thoughts before adding in the PV of a secondary character.)
Another time the use of a secondary character PV wouldn’t work –and again, this is just my opinion, other editors may feel differently—is when the character is new to the reader. Throwing in the PV of a secondary character whom the reader has not “met” before and won’t see again is never a good idea, IMO. Readers want to get to know your characters and relate to them, not be thrown into the PV of a stranger for a few paragraphs on page 150 and then back out. Use of a secondary PV in this type of situation doesn’t do anything to move the story forward; it’s a detour that takes us away from the actual story. If you find yourself doing this, ask yourself—what am I trying to impart here? That the hero’s second cousin’s maid of honor thinks he’s hot? If that’s all, then it’s unnecessary. (A good rule of thumb: When in doubt, take it out!) But if there is vital information to be shared, find another way –or another character-- so it won’t be so jarring to the reader.
Be warned, though, if your hero or heroine’s best friend starts leaping off the page at you or you find yourself adding them into scenes more and more or creating situations just for them…you might soon find yourself writing a second story, this time with your second banana in the lead role. Today’s sidekick may very well be tomorrow’s hero!
Who are some of your favorite secondary characters from popular fiction or movies?