To pick up where we left off in June about secondary characters in story or memoir, there are many types of secondary characters in writing. Some secondary characters come to the writer at the time she begins creating the story. I think of these characters as the primary secondary characters, the ones who are most involved with the protagonist and appear the most in her story.
While I knew my family would be in my memoir journey attending college, I never thought about including some friends and professors. But they are secondary characters, nonetheless.
Secondary characters can be thought about like this:
Primary secondary characters are the ones involved closely with your protagonist; i.e. family members, close friends.
Initial secondary characters are the ones that come to the writer at the beginning of the story writing. Let’s say you need a pivotal character to help move the plot along; i.e. a police officer or doctor, a co-worker, or murderer.
But there is a third kind of secondary character. They are the ones who come to you as you create the story. The unexpected acquaintance at a bar or café or the cab driver or stranger you meet at the airport. Someone who offers key information to help move the plot forward or to a satisfying conclusion.
Secondary characters can help establish what’s considered normal in your story world. In my case, my family establishes what life is like for Victoria prior to starting college.
But the family also becomes not so much enemies for the protagonist like in fiction, but rather obstacles at times during Victoria’s college journey.
My family’s role in the memoir is threefold. They set up the memoir story world before Victoria begins her college journey, they become the impetus for her to actually begin college, and they become both sounding board and obstacles along her journey.
The third kind of secondary characters holds important information for the protagonist. In my college memoir, this kind of secondary character is a friend who informs Victoria that she can attend a community college part time. A professor encourages Victoria to slow down and listen to the students around her. The Phi Theta Kappa Advisor informs her that the Ivy League is a possibility. These are the characters who push Victoria beyond—she believes—her capability. They force her to see and then seek the possibilities in her college journey. A scary endeavor to be sure. They move the memoir story forward.
*Please feel free to offer comments or ask questions on any secondary characters in my memoir. This helps me to move forward in my writing.*
An example of a secondary character who holds a key piece of information is like Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when she informs Harry where she heard a male voice and saw the yellow eyes coming from the circle of sinks in the third floor girls lavatory.
All characters require a backstory to help them feel real to the readers. The backstory doesn’t need to be as involved as it is for the protagonist. Remember, backstory is what happened to the character BEFORE the story present. In Myrtle’s case, she was a student at Hogwarts who was killed in the girls’ lavatory because she wasn’t a pure-blood witch.
Secondary characters should continue through the story so the reader isn’t wondering, “Hey, whatever happened to Moaning Myrtle?” In J.K. Rowling’s Potter series, Myrtle pops up whenever she has information to share with Harry and the reader. In other words, whenever she can move the story forward. And that’s the key.
Why exactly do you need secondary characters?
In reality, we don’t go through life alone. Neither should our protagonists. We have [and need] family and friends, work associates and strangers who help us with life issues or events. Don’t cheat your protagonist out of needed connections throughout your story. No one really lives in that deep, dark cave, seeing to their own personal needs. Never having troubles. Content. Happy.
[Although sometimes, I’d like to hide in a cave to be able to finish this memoir, one with electricity and internet hook-up of course.]
The protagonist is not the only character who affects the story world. Secondary characters impact your protagonist’s journey. Remember, your protagonist is still driving the story, but the secondary characters can support or impede the main character’s journey. But all the characters need to move your story forward. And each character needs to be different and have an important part in the main thrust of the story.
This is particularly difficult in memoir.
Story is not only about the external plot details and obstacles. Remember that story is the internal struggle of the protagonist. Secondary characters add tension to the internal problems of the protagonist.
In every story, the tension and problems are shown through scenes, the lifeblood of story. These are the interactions between characters, not just narration.
Like I said before, in memoir or fiction, each secondary character needs to have a specific personality, a reason to be, that benefits the main storyline. As the writer, you include only the facets of secondary characters’ lives that pertain to the story you are telling.
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