EVERY HERO NEEDS A FRIEND: Or the Importance of Secondary Characters

EVERY HERO NEEDS A FRIENDOr the Importance of Secondary Characters

Every story is character driven. Even the most explosive of plots needs characters to play against the special effects. Car chases only mean something insofar as we care about what happens to the drivers or the people on the sidelines.

Every story has a main character whose goal drives the story. Most stories also have secondary characters who help or hinder the main character’s attempt to reach his goal.

A sidekick is a faithful supporter. He stands loyally by someone or something. He encourages and points the way to success. He’s a cheerleader. “You can do it.” “I believe in you.” He can be almost gullible in his faith in a plan, person, or possibility. Usually, we think of a sidekick as a friend of the main character’s. But faith in someone or something isn’t just the purview of the good. Villains can also have people who believe in them and their goals. The sidekick can serve as a mirror for the hero. You can create conflict by having the hero fear what he sees in the mirror and turn away from the person who has his best interest at heart. Or you can have this faithful friend disappointed at the hero’s behavior and turning away. Both these events leave the hero struggling alone. In the sidekick, the hero can see what he could become if he could give up his flaw or get over his fear. Donkey in Shrek is the ultimate sidekick.

Just as villains can have friends, a hero can have someone around him who echoes the voice of doom. “This idea will never work.” “If you do this, you’re going to fail.” A skeptic opposes. He sees failure around every corner. He doubts everything–the plan, the person, the possibility. You can place doubt in the hero’s mind about his choices by having him listen to the skeptic’s black-cloud thoughts and doomsday warnings. Or you can advance the plot by having the hero turn away from the negative voice–feel the fear, but move forward anyway. In the skeptic, the hero can see a glimpse of his future self if he can’t give up his flaw or get over his fear. The Lion in The Wizard of Oz constantly opposes going into the unknown.

In a tightly woven story, every character offers a different take on the theme. In the movie Liar, Liar, every character in the story reflects the central conflict of lying–from the senior partner at Fletcher Reede’s law firm who has no respect for the truth, to witnesses willing to lie on the stand, to his secretary who’s forced to lie for him, to his client who’s as pathological a liar as he is and wants to take her children away from a good father. In this story world, the loved ones are the ones who are hurt by the lies in every sub-plot–Fletcher’s ex-wife, his son, his client’s children. Fletcher’s wife reflects the path of telling the truth. Fletcher’s son reflects faith that Fletcher can change and tell the truth. The concentrated whole achieves a satisfying story.

By using your secondary characters to reflect your theme, you can pressurize the coal of your initial idea into a story gem that shines as brightly as a well-cut diamond.

© December 2008