I've just happened upon this really useful and important post by Julie Cohen about secondary characters.
Once you've read it, come back here. No, go on - READ IT.
Done? Right, well, she says everything you need to know about secondary characters having to earn their place, so I need say no more. But I want to mention a tangential point.
Julie says: "... I’ve been struggling today, because I have a character who absolutely has to exist, in order for the plot to happen. However, she also has to leave almost immediately, and not reappear for the rest of the book. To me, this screams “PLOT DEVICE” in a big way and I was struggling with how to make her pull her weight more, and therefore have a more satisfying role in the story."
It brings me to the important issue of other things that scream PLOT DEVICE. This is very much something to watch out for in your writing. It often happens that we need to get character X from A to B; or we need a reason why he performs a particular act; or something about the plot doesn't quite work or feel believable. So we think to ourselves, "Hmmm, what could I slot in to deal with this?" But things slotted in can be horribly obvious and readers do not like them because it makes them feel manipulated. They see the hand of the author instead of the line of the story.
Yes, we use plot devices but we must disguise them.They should be neither seen nor heard, just do their job.
He appeared from nowhere. "Excellent posts by Julie and Nicola," he muttered. Nothing more. Then he turned and walked off through the crowd, never to be seen again.
I try to be really careful about this but it is sometimes hard.
Is it rather like the difference between a photograph and a picture which has been painted?
You take a photograph and everything in the view finder is there. The camera cannot decide what is important and all the photographer can do is decide on the view. The artist can decide what is important (the primary characters) and what goes in as well as deciding on the view (the secondary characters).
Regulus Black in HP was a character of convenience. It was a little annoying but didn't stop me reading the book. I guess they are best avoided but not necessarily the death knell
Being a very concise writer, I more often find I have to introduce an extra character because of something that needs to happen that none of the existing characters can or would do! - however, from having written for a youth drama group, I also know that if you give someone a part in scene 1 they don't want to be hanging around for the rest of the show with nothing to do so I usually try to give them some other purpose.
It's hard to know how many characters you need. Obviously in the case of the youth drama group you try and match this with the likely number of actors, but this sometimes goes wrong - as in the case of my son who once had to exit as King Neptune and enter about 2 minutes later as Ken Rifle, a castaway loosely based on Ben Gunn. (not sure what the novel equivalent of this is!!)
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