Last week, we discussed looked at how to introduce your main character. We looked at four factors and put that into practice by looking at two examples and an exception to the rule(s). This week we shall look at the best way to introduce a secondary character to your story.
The Four Factors
It must be noted that the same four factors for the main character apply when introducing any secondary character. So, to refresh, when considering how to introduce a secondary character to the story, writers must appreciate that the secondary character must engage the audience. The correct way to do this involves four factors:
- Giving the audience a flavour for the character (i.e. his/her status, personality and goals);
- Hinting at his/her struggles and goals for the rest of the narrative (without divulging too much detail)^;
- Adding parts in the dialogue that are key to the character, which will be extrapolated over the course of the narrative.
- Showing the context of the world in which he/she lives in.
Main Characters vs Secondary Characters
Unlike the main character, though, secondary characters are not the central focus of the story. So, when it comes to the best way to introduce a secondary character correctly, they need not be introduced right at the start of the story.
It is up to the writer to decide when to bring in the secondary character. Often, the timing of the secondary character’s introduction depends upon the role that he/she will play. This varies from narrative to narrative. But, commonly, a secondary character will play the role of:
- A useful assistant;
- A love interest;
- A mentor;
- A bad influence (although this one is less common); or
- A traitor.
Example For A Useful Assistant – Hermione Grainger
We first meet Hermione Grainger when Harry and Ron are on the Hogwarts Express in The Philosopher’s Stone about a fifth into the story. She asks if they have seen a toad as Neville, another student, has lost it. Then, she watches Ron does a spell wrong, prior to showing off a little bit of her magical knowledge. Subsequently, she tells the two boys to put on their robes, as they will need it when they arrive at the school, before walking off.
Thus, right from the off, we get a sense of that Hermione is intelligent and has a penchant for keeping to the rules. As the story goes on, it surprises no-one that she becomes the know-it-all of the class and Harry’s go-to-person when needing to solve a seemingly insolvable problem.
Example For A Love Interest – Christmas Jones
Often, the role of a love interest took the form of a (pretty) woman. She who would be in the narrative for the sole purpose of serving the male main character’s ego. Usually, the love interest even coincided with the damsel-in-distress, whether she was intelligent or not, just so that the central protagonist could save her.
While the role of a simple love interest seems like an anachronism today, it is worth highlighting the example of Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) in the 19th Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. In the movie, she was a nuclear physicist (as if anyone believed that) and allegedly knew how to diffuse a nuclear bomb.
However, for all her cleverness, she is introduced midway through the film (skimpily in the middle of the a nuclear facility) and only ever manages to get herself either captured or in life-threatening situations. Thus, it means James Bond must come to her rescue on several occasions. Indeed, when it really matters, she does nothing for the plot, other than look good and capture Bond’s imagination.
Example For A Mentor – Brom
The mentor is the one who teaches and guides the main character toward his/her goal. In Eragon, the first volume in The Inheritance Cycle, the mentor’s role is played by Brom. We first come across Brom when he tells the story one night over a fire about the fall of the dragon riders, and how King Galbatorix usurped power.
Suffice to say, Brom has a bit of mystery surrounding him. We don’t need to get too far ahead ourselves to foresee that Brom is going to have a larger role to play in the story; especially, as by the time we meet him, Eragon already has a dragon hatchling. Therefore, he is in need of knowledge and training. And who better to give it to him than the one man who actually knows a thing or two about both?
Example For A Bad Influence – Lord Henry Wotton
The Picture of Dorian Gray opens up with the eponymous character being painted by Basil the Painter. As Basil paints, Lord Henry Wotton waffles on about the virtues of a hedonistic lifestyle (that he clearly doesn’t abide by).
Henry’s sardonic assertion that beauty is the only aspect of life worth pursuing makes Dorian realise that he will age, but that the portrait of him won’t. Lord Henry then encourages Dorian to enter into a Faustian pact, whereby the portrait of him will age but he won’t.
Thus, from the off, we realise that Lord Henry Wotton is intelligent, sarcastic, a hypocrite and a bad influence on the young, impressionable Dorian. That Dorian subsequently pursues a life of debauchery and decadence is largely down to Lord Henry.
Examples For A Traitor
When the writer makes a secondary character a traitor, the secondary character must be introduced early to the story and be friends with the main character. At this point, writers have to decide if they want:
- The audience to know before the main character that the friend is a traitor; or
- At the same time.
When The Audience Knows of The Secondary Character’s Treachery Ahead of The Main Character – Snake Eyes
In the film, Snakes Eyes, police detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) and US Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) have known each other since childhood. They meet early on in the film and are working together to ensure that the US Defense Secretary is escorted to and from a boxing match safely.
Some shooting happens during the match and people of semi-importance to the plot get killed, and Rick suspects a conspiracy is at foot. Around the three-quarter mark in the film, he learns that his old friend, Kevin, is behind the conspiracy. Only, the audience already knew that as we saw Kevin shoot some people who knew about his involvement in cold blood.
To a large extent, writers should stay away from revealing to the audience that a secondary character is a traitor ahead of the main character. Yes, it can create tension whenever the traitor and the main character are together, and the audience holds its breath for when the moment of revelation comes for the central protagonist.
However, as we (the audience) know the truth, its emotional impact upon the main character finding out is significantly lessened, if not outright ruined. This is certainly true when compared to the next example.
When The Main Character And The Audience Find Out At The Same Time of The Secondary Character’s Treachery – Lysa’s Confession
In the last chapter of A Storm of Swords (or penultimate if you included the Epilogue), Lysa Arryn confesses to Sansa (the POV Character of the chapter) that it was not the Lannisters who poisoned her husband, the former Hand of the King, Lord Jon Arryn. Rather, it was her and Lord Petyr Baelish.
This is a bombshell of a revelation as it means that everything the reader believed about why Lord Eddard Stark became Hand of the King and lost his head were completely and utterly wrong. It is a moment that makes readers reassess Lord Petyr Baelish and Lady Lysa, both of whom we had first met (or heard of) quite early on in A Game of Thrones.
The revelation that they are the real traitors of the series is phenomenal because no-one could have foreseen that Lady Lysa was a murdering psychopath and the one who set the wheels in motion for the War of the Five Kings. (Lord Petyr, perhaps, less so. But, still, he was not a suspect in Jon Arryn’s murder and that reaffirms why the revelation is so brilliant.)
That the evidence pointing towards Cersei Lannister had been so strong only adds to the astonishing nature of the scene. And underlines why it is best for the audience to be kept in the dark vis-à-vis the secondary character traitor who is a traitor until the POV Character finds out.
From this blog post, I hope you can deduce that the best way to introduce a secondary character varies depending upon the role that the writer wants the secondary character to play.
Nevertheless, if writers wish for a particular secondary character to have noticeable effect on the plot, it is best to introduce him/her as early as possible i.e. within the first quarter of the narrative.
I would like to take this moment to thank you for reading this blog post on the best way to introduce a secondary character. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful. If you disagree with something I have written, or if there is a role for a secondary character that I have not mentioned, please write it in the comments below.
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