This post, from C. Patrick Shulze, originally appeared on his blog on 4/20/10.
When writing your novel, have you ever cut back or cut out a character you liked? How about one you didn’t like? Have you ever promoted a secondary character into a larger role within your novel? These events happen all the time in novel writing and, in fact, should happen.
Secondary characters are as common as leaves on a tree but have the power to kill both your writing and your novel. Despite this, they are as necessary to a good novel as your major characters.
How do they kill a novel? They can take over roles that belong to other characters. It is most onerous if they [overtake] a major character like the hero. In this case, the protagonist diminishes in stature which, in turn, makes readers less empathetic toward the him. And we all know an unlikable hero is the kiss of death to a novel. Further, if you incorporate too many secondary characters in your novel, they can confuse and overpower the reader, with the same result as the unsympathetic hero.
Primary Character: Hero, Villain, Sidekick
Secondary Character: Any necessary support character to provide needed color
Fringe Character: There for setting or imagery – walk-ons, if you will.
How do you decide which characters to include? Remember, your story is about your hero, not the secondary characters, so only include those who might affect the core beliefs or attitudes of your major characters. Not counting your fringe characters, a rule of thumb for a four hundred page novel suggests you might have three main characters and four to six secondary characters.
So, once you’ve decided upon your secondary characters, how might you bring those guys to life so they enhance your novel?