We've all had to do it, as an author you need to write them. I'm discussing those characters who come alive in your story for a brief moment then disappear into obscurity. Perhaps they may make another appearance, more than likely not.
There are volumes of books on how to build a character, how to define a character, make your lead character memorable, etc etc. but how many of them touch on the non-main characters?
Today I'm going to talk about secondary characters.
To begin, exactly how much description do you, the writer, add to this person?
Simple answer: as much as you want.
If you've ever attended a theater and watched a live performance, you may see a walk-on person who only comes in and places a glass of water on the table before disappearing stage left. How many times has a star been upstaged by a non-talking person? Don't even to attempt to answer that question. Does the person move in a way that is noticeable? Perhaps a stiff walk, slight goose-stepping, or maybe the person bends over dramatically to place the glass precisely in the middle of the table, using their fingers to snap away some unseen dust. In other words, they don't just walk in, plunk down the glass of water, and walk off. They do it with panache.
There is nothing wrong with writing secondary characters to have some panache, some distinctive detail to allow your reader to enjoy not only the main characters, but also those who are making the main characters great. My son had multiple parts in a musical – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat – and really hammed up a scene as one of the brothers. He didn't have a talking part for that scene, but people remembered him. How? While standing there with the other non-descriptive brothers, he decided to scratch his butt. No, not a little finger itch, he used his hand and moved his robe so people could see he was really digging for that scratch. He pulled that during rehearsal as a joke; the director loved it and that little action stayed in for all five showings of the high school play. After the shows, when asked which brother he portrayed, he'd reply with 'The one who itched.' and everyone knew who he was.
So how do you do this supposed magic? How do you get away with making secondary characters come alive? Again, very simple.
Example 1: The butler walked stiffly into the room, glanced haughtily down his nose at the seated group, announced dinner, performed an excellent 'about-face' and left.
You've done your job and given a walk-on character a description and somewhat of a personality. In this particular instance, the butler didn't do it and will perhaps only make one more small entrance later on in the story. I can hear you screaming 'cop out' with an easy example. True, but I'm sure you could feel the ooze of disdain and his snappy, business attitude.
To help, the following is more descriptive. Setup: Sort of a 'House on the Prairie' type setting with Betsy (our lead) and her friends in a store buying candy; they depart. (Note: the following is not properly formatted with paragraphs, etc.)
Example 2: Old Barry wedged the legs of the ladder into the store's porch floor then leaned it against the porch roof post. He wiggled the ladder to make sure it wouldn't move. Betsy and her cluster of girlfriends rushed by him as he started up the rungs. The sun now beamed brightly after the rain shower and Betsy immediately raised a hand to shade her eyes; she didn't see the on-coming wagon. The mud splattered up as the wheels dropped into the collected water puddles near her and Betsy immediately began screaming. In her shock, Betsy's hand came up tossing her bag of candy over her head, back toward Old Barry. "Mr. Bashore, just look at my new Sunday dress." she screamed at the passing wagon-master. "Do you have any idea what my mama is going to say?" Her girlfriends, safely behind her a few steps when it happened, now hovered about Betsy, attempting to help remove the larger clumps of mud. Old Barry was startled by the flying assortment of candy, lost balance and fell off the ladder, snagging his overalls on one rail of the ladder. He dangled in mid-air struggling to set himself free, his feet just mere inches from the floor. Betsy again looked down at her pretty, wet dress covered in mud and started to cry. Suddenly Beth Ann started to snicker, putting a gloved hand to her lips. Betsy got mad. Then Elizabeth began to giggle. Betsy got madder. Her beautiful dress was muddy and her best friends were laughing; she was not amused. Jane finally joined in the amusement and was laughing just as hard as the other two girls. Betsy fumed. She didn't like be laughed at, stamped her foot, tossed her head, shaking her long curly tresses and began to walk away from them. "Look, Betsy," Beth Ann said and pointed to Old Barry struggling to free himself. The ladder was clearly wedged between the post of the porch and the porch's deck. Mr. Peterson ran out of his store wiping his hands on his green apron. He carefully pulled the ladder toward him so Old Barry could free himself. Betsy glanced at the scene, turned and walked away. It didn't matter to her what that old fool did. Her friends quickly joined her but she remained silent.
In the above example there were a couple of walk-on characters. The main character, Betsy is obviously very self-centered and/or spoiled. Her friends have been in the story so they've been pretty much described before. Old Barry is a new character and has a brief moment of limelight to add a little levity to Betsy's traumatic mudding. Mr. Peterson has an even smaller part. You probably visualized Old Barry wearing baggy overalls with over-the-shoulder straps, an old floppy hat and he probably even had a scraggly beard. A likeable old fart. Somehow I saw Mr. Peterson as tall, with a green apron (as stated), so he probably had on a starched, white shirt and my mind also showed him with thinning hair parted down the center.
Note I added hair, clothes colors and height in my mind just with a simple "Mr. Peterson ran out of his store wiping his hands on his green apron." If you give the reader 'some' detail, their mind will fill in the rest to round out the character. If I had used the term 'huffed' rather than 'run' – I probably would have envisioned a heavier, more robust man. Amazing what one word can do to a description.
Even a 'mob' can be secondary characters. To say something like "The mob stood there watching the parade." is very banal and boring. To begin with; a mob is a collection of people who are actively doing something. Otherwise, you have a group. In other words "The group stood there watching the parade." How about "The mob jeered and whistled as they watched the parade." See? The mob is actively doing something. The group is watching.
So, in closing, the secondary cast, those walk-on people who aren't the main characters, don't have to be relegated to non-descriptive parts, they can have charisma, personality and definition to become, and be a part of your memorable story.