Plot-Influencing Secondary Characters

Why your secondary characters must spin, twist, or propel your plot.

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Imagine a beach on a hot Summer’s day. People are scattered across the sand and flitting around in the sea. Now imagine that every character that appears in your novel, in any shape or form, is in that scene. Your main characters, the ones with all the dialogue, are playing volleyball. Even your antagonists have revealed a competitive streak and are heavily involved in keeping that ball from hitting the water, which is important since the ball represents your plot and if it stops moving, you lose your readers.

With every touch, those main characters keep the plot-ball moving, keeping the pace of the game alive. Just a few steps behind them are your secondary characters, the best friends, the sidekicks, the ones that get a little bit of time to shine in your novel. These characters must, over the course of the game, manage to muscle their way in on the action, get their fingertips to the plot-ball and spin it off into a new direction.

Secondary characters must influence and shape your plot. If they don’t, you need to make them more important, interesting, essential. They can’t just be there for the sake of it. Readers don’t know them as well as they do the main characters, so secondary characters allow great opportunities for plot twists that can really sneak up on your readers and get them addicted to your story.

Let’s have a look at two such examples of secondary characters who made sure they got a really good whack of their story’s plot-ball.

Firstly, my predictable Disney example. In the 1995 animated film Pocahontas, the title character’s best friend, Nakoma, feels she must tell someone from her tribe that she is worried for Pocahontas’ safety—after all, Nakoma has just seen Pocahontas sneaking off with an invading Englishman whose fellow sailors are thoughtlessly digging up land and behaving in a highly hostile way towards Pocahontas’ father’s tribe.

Nakoma could possibly have told someone who was a little less hot-headed, but she chooses, in her worried state, to tell the most honoured warrior of the tribe, who is pretty much betrothed to Pocahontas: Kocoum.

Kocoum goes in search of Pocahontas, and unfortunately finds her just as she and the Englishman, John Smith, are sharing their first kiss. At the same time, another plot-driving secondary character, sailor Thomas, has followed John Smith and is extremely surprised to find John smooching a girl from the Powhatan tribe.

What happens next is wonderfully quick. Kocoum’s rage takes hold and he charges, with war cry and dagger, at John. Pocahontas tries to break up the fight but Kocoum shoves her away. Thomas, gun in hand, can see his fellow sailor is on death’s door and, what with the throw-in of John saving Thomas from drowning in an early scene of the film, must repay the favour. He aims and fires, and Kocoum dies.

Thomas, Kocoum and Nakoma are all secondary characters in the story, but they all managed to get their fingertips to the Pocahontas plot-ball.

When it comes to secondary characters interfering with the love lives of their friends, more often than not, jealously is the driving emotional force.

The Delirium trilogy by Lauren Oliver revolves around Lena, a teenager in Maine, USA, 64 years after love—or ‘delirium’—has been declared a disease. Lena and her long-term bestie Hanna are looking forward to their inoculations, their matches of the opposite sex who they will marry, and hopefully good jobs. Then Lena stumbles upon a supposedly vaccinated young guard called Alex. Alex patrols the border fence to ensure the uncured, the former members of society that were against being vaccinated, do not get into town.

Over the next few months, Lena and Alex are thrown together a few times, and Lena is happy to spend time with him because she believes he is already cured. However, of course, he is not—he is part of the uncured and holds his border control position as an ideal way to get information in and out between his fellow uncured and their contacts within the town.

Before she knows it, Lena has been infected with delirium (i.e. she’s fallen in love with Alex). She keeps spending time with him, hanging around in deserted parts of town, and her best friend Hanna, (who is the one who usually gets all the attention from the uncured boys) is trusted to keep their secret.

At the end of the first book, just as Alex is trying to get Lena out of the town and over the border fence, they are stopped by the town’s enforcement. Lena manages to get away, but Alex is caught. Lena, of course, never questions who it was that told the authorities. They must have just been controlling that area; it’s the only explanation.

It’s not until the middle of the second book that we find it was Hanna who informed the authorities of Lena and Alex’s escape, because she was jealous of what they had.

Yep, Hanna, a secondary character, also took a great big whack of the Delirium trilogy plot-ball, and the story would have been vastly different if she hadn’t.

So, yet another influential secondary character pushes the plot in a whole new direction, because secondary characters need to push the plot. If they don’t, what’s the point in them?

Remove a main character from your story, and your story couldn’t happen at all. But remove one of the supporting acts, one of the secondary characters, and your story should be very different, and probably quite boring. If not, then why are they there at all?

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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