I adore secondary characters. From the very first book I wrote, I crammed them in there. And not as throw-aways, either. To me, the uniqueness of characters in terms of appearance, backstory, quirky expressions/gestures/crutch words, phrases they say, etc., is especially important if 1) you have a large cast of characters, or 2) you’re writing a series or 3) (and here’s the real point) if you want to wholly engage your readers.
Which sweeps you away more – a high school drama production with cardboard trees and half-assed costumes? Or a big budget movie, filmed on location with lots of awesome CGI? That’s the difference between a book with cardboard cutouts as secondary characters or the real deal.
You can lean on tropes, i.e. the funny best friend, a gay best friend, an interfering mom, etc. Why? Because stereotypes exist for a reason – they really do happen. When I was an actress, did I know a dozen over-the-top gay men? You bet. Do my friends bitch about their overbearing, interfering mothers? All the time. So feel free to use them, as long as they are still unique in some fashion.
The point is that everyone in a book has to be interesting. The old guy who is in two scenes for about five lines – make him memorable. Or at least be sure you spend the time to fully describe him. Is he wearing a sweater vest that his wife knit him 20 years ago – full of holes but he won’t wear anything else since she died? Now he’s a real person, instead of just a faceless man propping up the main characters (and an adorable character in my xmas novella, Tinsel My Heart ).
Yup, that’s right – even in a 30,000 word book, I’ve got minor players. Why? Because it is always worth the effort. Because your hero and heroine don’t live in a vacuum. Because every single day you interact with other people, so the stars of your book should, too. In my short contemporary A Matchless Romance (and come back on Monday to see an excerpt from it during release week!) I have a scene with three additional women who show up to give the hero a makeover. You see them for all of five pages. They aren’t mentioned before or after. Could the heroine have given her a makeover by herself? Sure. But what fun is that? A makeover party with snacks and cocktails and women eyeing him like a triple layer chocolate cake – now that is fun.
“Funny guy. Tabitha, you didn’t tell us he was funny. Only that he was smoking hot.” Even in stacked heels, the woman with Asian features who marched up to him only came to Drew’s sternum. “I’m Tara Parks. Recruited to make you over.” She gave him a long, slow once-over. The kind that if he did it to a woman would net Drew a fast slap across the face. “But I don’t see anything that needs improvement, once we get rid of that abomination of a shirt you’re wearing.”
Adding those characters, even for such a brief time, plumps up the reality of the scene. It turns black and white pages into super vivid 3D. Because no matter how epic your main characters may be, they can’t shoulder the whole book themselves. Give them a few extra shoulders to lean on – your readers will thank you!