Like most writers, I spend a lot of time getting to know my lead characters. I catalog their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, what they dream of, what they fear. But while revising a chapter in my book I came to the realization that I don’t put nearly that much effort into the majority of my secondary characters. I’m not talking about the blink-and-you-miss him walk-on roles here. I’m referring to the people my protagonist and antagonist deal with on a regular basis.
Where my lead is fully realized, the person he was interacting with in this particular instance came off as a partially rendered 3D character in a live-action film. What could have been a show-stopping scene instead fell flat. Everything from movement to dialog seemed forced and unnatural. As a writer I was stumped. As a reader I was frustrated.
Then it dawned on me: Secondary characters are as vital to a well-written story as strong leads. Without them the protagonist has no steel against which to sharpen himself.
One of the best ways I’ve found to fix this problem is to tackle the scene from a different point of view. In this particular chapter my protagonist is dealing with an acquaintance who seems to live to make his life difficult in any way possible. Until recently it was just a literary device to move the story along; I didn’t realize why it was that this particular person was so strongly opposed to my lead. Writing the scene completely from the secondary character’s perspective resulted in two things. First, I discovered Reason and Motive, bringing a realistic depth to both the character and the scene. Second, I uncovered a few new foibles about my less-than-perfect hero that I can use to my advantage at a later date.
This exercise also reminded me of another fundamental truth about writing: There are always two sides to every story, and as a writer it’s my job to get to the bottom of both.