I’ve regularly received feedback that my secondary characters are taking over my story so my question is, how can I prevent this – and what role should the secondary character play in my story?
Introducing a secondary character (or two!) into your storyline is always a delicate balancing act – and certainly a tricky one to master! The presence of the secondary character should be felt, but never distract or deviate from the central relationship at the very heart of your romance…only support it.
Many of our series have a word limit between 50,000 to 70,000 words, which simply means there isn’t enough page space to be intensely developing stories and characterisations beyond your hero and heroine. Instead, as editors, we look towards the secondary character to provide depth and vibrancy to your storyline, helping to create the world in which your protagonists interact and ultimately fall in love.
And if you find yourself wondering whether your secondary character is stealing too much of the limelight, double-check! Because you don’t want your reader finishing your sensational novel with its tear-jerking happy-ever-after, only to remember the overly charismatic sidekick on page 33…
So, with that in mind, here are our Top Tips for keeping the secondary character under control – and keeping the spotlight firmly on your hero and heroine!
1. Create a splash of colour…not an explosion!
Primarily, the secondary character is there to provide colour and variety to the storyline, encouraging those black and white words to come alive on the page and, in doing so, transport the reader into the fictional world you have created. Just as we don’t wander around in beautiful little love bubbles in the real world, nor should the characters in your story…and the secondary character creates that perfect grip on reality.
However, too much colour and the subtlety is lost! Over-developed eccentricities or, on the other end of the spectrum, characters that are too stereotypical, become far too memorable, pulling the reader away from the central romance and out of the story.
2. The purpose of the supporting role…
All secondary characters must be there for a reason, and even these minor roles can vary in their significance. Whilst some characters are used almost as a plot device, such as a taxi man or secretary – lending authenticity in a simple sentence or two – other secondary characters may take on a more important role. Characters such as ‘the best friend’ or ‘the sister’ provide a secondary access point for the reader, allowing the hero or heroine to verbalise internal thoughts that they might not be ready to share with one another. Even the type of company that the hero and heroine keeps can be telling about their personality – whether they surround themselves with friends, or act as a lone wolf, shunning relationships. The secondary character’s purpose is to reveal hidden information about the hero or heroine, not about themselves!
3. What’s in a name?
There’s no need to mention every Tom, Dick and Harry…so watch out, because as soon as you give a secondary character a name, their significance in the reader’s eyes shoots sky-high. Names stick like super glue, so only introduce those that your reader needs to remember – and make sure to meet your hero and heroine first! One more thing, make sure that secondary characters’ names are different enough from your hero and heroine, it’s an easy mistake to make but no Sophies and Sophias, or Janets and Janes please!
4. The Catalyst
Often, the secondary character can act as a catalyst to tension-fuelled moments in the hero and heroine’s relationship, perhaps revealing game-changing (and sometimes misleading) information that the central characters were unaware of. However, do be aware that whilst these moments may help to progress the plot, the main driving force of your story should be the internal, emotional conflict between the protagonists.
5. Always the bridesmaid?
Finally, the old saying ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’ isn’t true every time! If you create an intriguing secondary character that captures your reader’s imagination, there’s always the opportunity to tell their happy-ever-after in your next book…so keep your options open!
Do you have a question about your manuscript that you’re wrestling with? Or have you been given feedback that you want more clarity on? If so, drop us a line at SOLD-Blog@harlequin.ca and we’ll answer your query on the next ‘Dear Editor’ feature!