CREATING A GOOD SECONDARY CHARACTER
In television jargon, the job is called being a second banana.
I Love Lucy, an old television show still being broadcast somewhere, has Ethel as second banana to Lucy. Ethel participated in most of Lucy’s madcap adventures and often helped the viewer to understand Lucy’s point of view, why Lucy did what she did.
Dr. Watson performed the same function for Sherlock Holmes, which was a good thing because readers wouldn’t have known what Holmes was thinking at any given time without the banter with Watson.
The process of storytelling hasn’t changed much for writers today.
A main protagonist needs to bounce ideas off someone. A secondary character can be supportive, define the setting or help progress the story. Going deeply into the plot without an ally is difficult, and even lone wolf detectives have a backup somewhere.
Dashell Hammett’s Sam Spade had his trusty secretary to lean on when his partner was killed. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone had her steadfast neighbor, Henry, to pull her back when she went too far on that proverbial limb. Luke Skywalker had Han Solo to help defeat the Death Star and Harry Potter had Hermione and Ron in his battles with He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.
Secondary characters can be good or bad. Having a pristine character of any kind is not particularly interesting because humans are not perfect. We all have flaws so the characters we read should have flaws as well. Hans Solo seemed to get on everyone’s nerves, up to a point, until his true blue nature came shining through and he fell for Princess Leia.
While having a secondary character can be fun, don’t write too many. If your readers are flipping back to remember who a character is, you’ve confused them—never a good idea. Be sure your characters have a reason to be there and your story will be the better for it.