What’s Harry Potter without Ron Weasley? What’s Katniss Everdeen without Peeta? For that matter, what’s Peter Pan without Wendy?
The secondary or minor character plays an important role in a story. His/her appearance allows the protagonist the opportunity to share the problem that needs solving with a peer. The sharing might be in the form of conversation between the two characters or it might be the assistance provided by the sidekick. Either method gives the reader an inside look at what’s going on in the protagonist’s head by showing, not telling.
There are all kind of secondary characters. Some appear briefly (the person at the cash register adding up the protagonist’s grocery bill). Some become an intricate and necessary part of the story. They will not only provide help, they may do the opposite: temporarily thwart the protagonist’s progress.
This type of secondary character—the sidekick—needs to be nearly as fully developed as the main character. His/her back story needs to explain the reason the sidekick behaves the way he/she does.
In an intense story, the sidekick can have another job: to provide comedic relief. Ron Weasley does so with his hand-me-down clothes, his wand that doesn’t work quite as well, his less-than-perfect pet. But Ron is loyal, loyal, loyal to Harry and in the end, his loyalty pays off. He gets the girl.
Having your sidekick be the narrator of the story adds an interesting component. The point of view might be third person omniscient, but may feel closer to first person. We feel like the secondary character has invited us to a front row seat. We are about as close to the action as we can get without being in the main character’s head.
The secondary character can help to explain the protagonist’s motivation. Conversely, he may provide stumbling blocks that the main character must overcome. Say your protagonist is an impulsive person. The sidekick in this case may serve as the voice of reason. He/she may try to stop the main character from over-reacting.
Sometimes, the secondary character is so interesting that he/she graduates to main character in the next book. Beezus and Ramona begat the Ramona books. Anastasia Krupnick’s little brother Sam soon starred in All About Sam and three other “Sam” books followed. Neither of these characters took over the first books, but their personalities left readers wanting more.
The fact that Ron comes from a large, loving family is important in two respects. He is used to welcoming others into his world but being best friends with the infamous Harry Potter allows him to stand out when he’d otherwise just be another middle child. Peeta, we learn, has always had a crush on Katniss. Because we know that information, we look at his early alliance with some of the other tributes as shrewdness, not deceit. Peter Pan’s story is not interesting unless he can introduce his island to someone who has never seen it before.
Look at your work in progress and examine what you’ve revealed about your secondary characters. If the character is a sidekick, how much back story have you revealed about him/her? Remember to provide enough information so that the reader connects with the sidekick as well as the protagonist.