On secondary characters

I’ve seen two related memes recently that stuck out in my memory.

The first says something like, “I’m 35 and have yet to receive my call to adventure. I’m starting to worry that I’m not a protagonist.”

The second says something like, “I never received a letter to Hogwarts at 11. I never discovered a wardrobe to Narnia. I wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider… Gandalf, you’d better be planning to visit me when I turn 40.”

In my case, I happen to love secondary characters. They are often my favorites. My favorite characters from The Harry Potter series? Lord of the Rings? Remus Lupin, Faramir, and Eowyn. (Though Samwise Gamgee will always have my heart!)

In this respect, I find St. Andrew just a FASCINATING historical and religious figure. I’ve heard various speakers talk about how Andrew introduced his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, because he knew Jesus first. Then Jesus calls them both, along with their friends and business partners, James and John. And THEN? Simon Peter, James, and John become Jesus’s inner circle, and Andrew is left out of some stuff. Some important stuff. Does that mean Andrew didn’t matter? No. It means his role was something different than that of the other three. I like to imagine Andrew struggling to accept this, fighting feelings of confusion, hurt, and bitterness as he learned through that process who he truly was, who he was called to be, and what God’s love for him, personally, was. And that changed his life. His destiny.

The fun thing about writing secondary characters–and the challenge–is to remember that in reality none of us is “secondary.” All of us, in some respect or other, take secondary roles in certain instances. That teaches humility, patience, and self-control, among other virtues, and is a good and necessary thing. I have characters, for instance, who recognize that they live under a monarchy and legitimately owe obedience and loyalty to a good and just king. But having a secondary ROLE doesn’t make a person (or fictional character) secondary in importance or value.

Nobody considers themselves secondary. And as I just said, nobody actually is. Even when we recognize that our role (perhaps even our primary role in life) is one of support and encouragement to someone else whose role is tackle obstacles they could never conquer alone (Aaron to Moses?) we recognize that the other person doesn’t have greater value than we do. We recognize and even demand to be treated with dignity and respect.

So should your characters! We are all the protagonist of our own stories as well as supporting characters in the stories of others. As a Catholic, I believe we all have a role to play in God’s great story of salvation, and as it is said on the stage, “There are small actors but never small roles.” Every role is critical. The story would collapse without any one of them.

Writing realistic secondary characters means remembering that those characters will be focused, most certainly, upon themselves (if also upon other things). So ask yourself as you write: What are their dreams and goals? What is important to them? If they have an obvious role of service or support (Sam to Frodo is a great example) ask yourself why they take up that role and how they feel about it. Are they willing or unwilling? Are they doing it of necessity? With a spirit of cheerfulness, resentment, or resignation? If given the opportunity, would they choose to switch to another role, perhaps a primary role in a different environment or course of events? Why or why not?

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