Look at what showed up in my in-box this week. The cover for Bound By Ink. Isn't it pretty? Creepy. Lovely. It makes me so happy. It's apropos that the cover showed up in time for this post, because it's in this book where I got the whole secondary character thing wrong.
Most heroes and heroines are pretty self-sufficient. So why do they even need a cast of supporting characters?
Well. How many of us exist in splendid isolation IRL? Sure. Depending on the day, any of us might *wish* we did, but the truth is we have family, friends, and coworkers no matter how dysfunctional. We’re social animals and we are products of our mostly shared human experience. (Yeah, okay, Dexter and Hannibal are notable exceptions…) There’s a psychological hypothesis that suggests most of us spend our lives building a family that cures the wounds acquired in our family of origin. No family of origin can be everything to each kid and that’s without any egregious dysfunction in said family. According to this theory, we come to our lives slightly injured. Winged and vulnerable. Searching for someone(s) enough like us to give us whatever acceptance we crave. We speak in terms of finding our tribe.
It is likely, then, that our characters are in the same situation. Either they are looking for a tribe that can bring them healing, or they are already surrounded by the people who can challenge them to become better.
All well and good, right? But why are these secondary characters necessary to the story at all? No matter the story-telling medium, secondary characters should be holding up mirrors to your MC. Each of those secondaries should show your MC some different aspect of him or herself. Secondary characters are forcing the MC to step up to whatever challenges need to be faced – they urge the MC to change – to acknowledge their shortcomings and overcome them.
Most of my stories are about alienated heroines searching for a place to belong. In the first two books, Ari and Jayleia each know that’s what they’re after. In their cases, they were each cast out of one tribe and are flailing while seeking another. Enemy Within and Enemy Games have big casts of secondary characters. Reasons: War. Five book series. Three cultures in conflict. Heroines expelled from family on one side, forced to cross political boundaries in order to find their places in the sun. The cast of secondary characters for those books are supplying the heroes and heroines for the rest of the series. There’s just a lot going on there and the cast of thousands really is necessary. Besides. War. People die. This requires that you have enough cast in place to accommodate the die offs.
In Nightmare Ink and Bound By Ink, Isa has no idea she’s seeking family. The whole family thing hasn’t worked out well for her and she’s frankly terrified of caring or being cared for. But when she ends up gravely wounded, she finds out she’s already surrounded by a group of friends who have made themselves her true family without her having realized it. Yet another group of unlikely allies orbit a little farther out, but they rely upon her. She finds out she can count on them, too, when the dying starts.
As for what I got wrong in Bound By Ink? How much is too much. My own tribe had to urge me to pull back on the extended posse appearances. So about the point that secondary characters are on the page simply because I needed to remind you they existed - that is posse gone wrong.