Years ago I ran into an anime (Japanese cartoon) called Naruto and there was something that intrigued me about it. It was that all of the secondary and tertiary characters were more than background and toss away characters. There was depth and story behind even some of the smallest characters, which kept me interested more than the main characters and the main plot. It was this series that made me realize that my minor characters were just as important, if not more important, than the heroes.
I know there are some genres where the stories can exist with only one or a handful of characters, but I don’t work in those genres. Truthfully, I’m not even sure what genres those are because I love having a colorful supporting cast. I think having unique and endearing characters around the core characters helps to carry a story and bring out other sides of the core characters. This can range from a mild rival that forces the hero to learn a lesson to a romantic subplot with a secondary female character. The point is that there would be something missing from the story if these characters weren’t there to form the base of the character development pyramid. Most people develop through their interactions with other people, so it really shouldn’t be any different for a character. It took me a few years to figure this out and a few more years to feel like I had it down pat in my writing.
As I said in earlier posts, I tend to focus more on character development and interactions than the overall plot. I think how the characters grow and mature is more fascinating than if they succeed in their quest. The supporting characters are where this growth and maturity comes from. They give the heroes somebody to interact with in ways that the main quest wouldn’t allow. For example, Luke has various students and teachers that he will have conversations with that will help him evolve his own world view. He will make friends that will teach him about friendship, loyalty, and trust. Even the villains will help Luke grow as a character. All of these are interactions that go beyond the main story and rely on characters that would be designated as secondary or tertiary. Without them, Luke would still be the cocky, immature, reckless warrior by the end of the entire series.
The challenge, as always, is how you make a deep secondary character that doesn’t overshadow the hero. Personally, I think it’s okay to have a secondary character overshadow the hero to some extent. I’ve had many secondary characters become the central focus of a scene, which makes it more feasible for the reader to connect to them and understand them. There is more freedom with a secondary because they can be zany, stupid, and other attributes that don’t typically appear in heroes. Now, I think a simple way is to create your secondary characters beforehand with a story that can fit into the main plot. Take some time to give them quirks and figure out how they will interact with the hero. This also helps you flush out your hero a little more. Then again, there is also the method of making them up as you need them and seeing where free-writing takes you. I use both to various extents and I’m sure there are other methods out there. All I can say is what’s worked for me.