I See You, You See Me: How Secondary Characters Help Out

So you’ve decided on a novel structure–it’s going to be a multiple point of view story. No, it’s a single point of view, but there’s several secondary characters. No, it is multiple point of view. “Help, I can’t decide!”

Well, novel structure is really another topic. Don’t get me wrong, choosing one, going single or multiple point of view, does impact the story and your Readers. But regardless of which character gets the bulk of our eyes’ attention, other characters in a story do exist–the secondary characters.

Any time a character is not the point of view (POV) in a novel’s scene or chapter, they are considered a secondary. This character may also have their own chapters with their own POV, as in a multiple POV story. They can be a focus of the primary character, like Watson observing Sherlock Holmes. They may have a minor role, or just walk through a scene. That character might even be a dead body in a Mystery. And–gasp!–the secondary could also be a setting.

What’s great about secondary characters is that they not only round out a story, they do double duty for the main story character.

Doing Double Duty

So how does this work?

Your POV character reacts and has opinions of a setting. The same goes for having reactions and opinions of secondary characters. These secondary characters can be in the scene or offstage.

By the POV interacting with that character in some way, this helps to frame the POV. And the setting. And the story.

Here’s some questions you can ask about your secondary characters:

  • What is the secondary character’s role in this story?
  • Is the secondary an acting “force” on the setting or the POV?

Showing How It Works

Okay, I’ll answer the questions above with three practical examples.

In each one, the POV is the same, Sue Jackson. The setting is the same. But what changes is a different secondary character who walks into the scene. Let’s see how this changes things.

The first is a Romance…

The whirling chatter of a bean grinder comforted Sue Jackson. People queued up for warm beverages, while an antique cash register happily rang out sales—none of that beeping, god-awful digital screen stuff. Cinnamon and chocolate and sugary cream smells filled the air, reminding her of family Christmas at the log cabin by Ogasochi Lake. Relatives sang songs, toasted to a better New Year, and everyone smiled. Everyone so full of hope. Before grinding out another nine to five, mornings at the Fifth Street Happy Barista in Chicago felt just like that for her, so full of some kind of Christmas hope.

            A few people managed to find seats near her, but nobody bothered Sue. She had settled back at the corner table, the round, oak top about two feet in diameter, the perfect size for a cup of expresso and her latest romance novel. With still an hour to go before the Blue Line ride to the Loop, she could get in a get in a few more chapters, finish her favorite morning drink, and dream of a someday man.

            Life just couldn’t be any better.

            A man in a tailored merino wool suit—too much for Sue’s taste—got up to leave. Gold cufflinks and tie clip finished him off in a too-neat and showy package. She preferred someone with simpler tastes, someone who didn’t play power games both at work and in the bedroom.

            But now a vacuum of empty chair existed, and someone from the crowd of coffee drinking customers would swoop in to fill the void. Who? Hopefully no one that would break this morning ritual.

             She was about two pages further into the book when a deep, warm voice approached the nearby empty chair. A man calmly apologized several times to others as he squeezed through the tight rows, the soothing rhythm making its way over. Sue had always wanted to visit the Florida keys. She imagined what it might be like lying close to someone on the sand, an evening breeze, and that someone staring into her eyes, speaking to her in that calm voice. She welcomed the voice—no, she desired it.

            He stood at the table next to her, dark, wavy hair, sharp green eyes. A five o’clock shadow ran along his square jaw, but his clothes weren’t shabby—a clean, plaid sport shirt and khakis promised work and adventure. A stranger, he didn’t dress for downtown business. He seated himself, a steady motion that expressed ease of movement and someone who was in tune with his body.

            Sue tried not to stare, but he caught her looking. He smiled warmly and looked at her expresso. He was drinking the same and raised his cup in toast. Her heart skipped several beats and she didn’t know if she could continue reading.

            What did he smell like? If she were in his arms, his body close to hers?

            She glanced over again, hoping their eyes met. No wedding band. And he was reading a paperback! The words on her page blurred. Her expresso untouched, her desires simmered for something else. Christmas had come early.

Now, things get a little odd…

The whirling chatter of a bean grinder comforted Sue Jackson. People queued up for warm beverages, while an antique cash register happily rang out sales—none of that god-awful digital screen stuff. Cinnamon and chocolate and sugary cream smells filled the air, reminding her of family Christmas at the log cabin by Ogasochi Lake. Relatives sang songs, toasted to a better New Year, and everyone smiled. Everyone so full of hope. Before grinding out another nine to five, mornings at the Fifth Street Happy Barista in Chicago felt just like that for her, so full of some kind of Christmas hope.

            A few people managed to find seats near her, but nobody bothered Sue. She had settled back at the corner table, the round, oak top about two feet in diameter, the perfect size for a cup of expresso and her latest romance novel. With still an hour to go before the Blue Line ride to the Loop, she could get in a get in a few more chapters, finish her favorite morning drink, and dream of a someday man.

            Life just couldn’t be any better.

            A man in a tailored merino wool suit—too much for Sue’s taste—got up to leave. Gold cufflinks and tie clip finished him off in a too-neat and showy package. She preferred someone with simpler tastes, someone who didn’t play power games both at work and in the bedroom.

            But now a vacuum of empty chair existed, and someone from the crowd of coffee drinking customers would swoop in to fill the void. Who? Hopefully no one that would break this morning ritual.

             She was about two pages further into the book when a soft, southern accent floated over. It was an exaggerated enunciation that some comedians may parody, a  silly version of Scarlett from Gone with the Wind. Sue had watched the movie several times, and each time she would repeat, “As God is my witness…” with flourish, then giggle with delight.

            A woman fluttered over, almost dancing, as she made her way over to the empty table. Her blond hair was done up in a traditional beehive, a style really not seen since the 1960s. She gently placed a frothy cappuccino down like handling a soft butterfly, not a drop spilled. A crisp, neat sweetener packet followed, then she sat down like a Christmas fairy princess delighted to be at court. 

            Sue was fascinated. She must have been staring. The woman smiled at her, pointed at her book, and ooh’d with a tinkling laugh. Sue couldn’t help but return the smile before returning to her pages.

            The woman stirred her coffee, humming to herself.

           She was her own party. Sue became undecided about her own drink—could she finish it? The words on the page were just black text compared to an adventure in conversation just a table over. Or downtown crazy.

And finally, eerie..

The whirling chatter of a bean grinder comforted Sue Jackson. People queued up for warm beverages, while an antique cash register happily rang out sales—none of that god-awful digital screen stuff. Cinnamon and chocolate and sugary cream smells filled the air, reminding her of family Christmas at the log cabin by Ogasochi Lake. Relatives sang songs, toasted to a better New Year, and everyone smiled. Everyone so full of hope. Before grinding out another nine to five, mornings at the Fifth Street Happy Barista in Chicago felt just like that for her, so full of some kind of Christmas hope.

            A few people managed to find seats near her, but nobody bothered Sue. She had settled back at the corner table, the round, oak top about two feet in diameter, the perfect size for a cup of expresso and her latest romance novel. With still an hour to go before the Blue Line ride to the Loop, she could get in a get in a few more chapters, finish her favorite morning drink, and dream of a someday man.

            Life just couldn’t be any better.

            A man in a tailored merino wool suit—too much for Sue’s taste—got up to leave. Gold cufflinks and tie clip finished him off in a too-neat and showy package. She preferred someone with simpler tastes, someone who didn’t play power games both at work and in the bedroom.

            But now a vacuum of empty chair existed, and someone from the crowd of coffee drinking customers would swoop in to fill the void. Who? Hopefully no one that would break this morning ritual.

            She was about two pages further into the book when someone smelling of gin approached the nearby empty chair. Her Uncle Bob had always smelled like that, yellow teeth, greasy shirt, always drunk. He wanted to give hugs, but sometimes he tried to grab more. The only reason she visited him at all was because Mom made her go. Sue didn’t even attend his funeral. Now, it was like a ghost from the past.

            A clown stood at the table next to her, flaming red hair teased up on both sides of his head like two torches. A rubber ball nose, white face makeup, a frilly costume with polka dots. He sat down and a horn honked. He muttered something, yucked out a few laughs while lifting his rear end, then placed the annoying toy on the table.

            He looked over at her and grinned. Yellowed teeth greeted her. He picked up his double grande regular, scaly fingers wrapping themselves around the wide cup. When the clown raised it to her like a toast, Sue turned away from the hideous spectacle, her eyes planted in the book, pretending to read.

            But God, the smell of the gin! The clown must have bathed in the stuff.

            She felt his eyes on her, heavy, lidded. The words on the page blurred together. The expresso grew cold, untouched. A chill crept up her back. Christmas? This was Halloween.

And So Much More

Hopefully, the above examples give you some idea of how secondary characters can impact a story. In the above examples, each walk-on affects the type of story it will play out to be.

But secondary characters can do so much more. They also can have opinions of the setting and the POV, spoken out loud. Or given their own POV in a later chapter, we learn even more about a secondary. They will even have reactions to the main character. This is where your imagination, the writer, comes into all of this.

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