One of my favorite characters in my latest novel, Secrets She Left Behind, has no starring role, no point of view and he's only in the limelight in a few scenes. Yet, he's one of my all time favorite characters. Maggie Lockwood, on the other hand, does play a starring role, and Dr. Jakes is her psychotherapist. That makes him important, but when I first created him, I had no idea how important he would come to be. Nor did I know how much I would like him. Secondary characters are like that. They sneak up on both writer and reader, sucking us in before we know what's happened.
I fully expected Maggie's therapist to be a female. I had a private psychotherapy practice myself in my former career as a clinical social worker, and I worked with countless young women Maggie's age, so I pictured her therapist as a compassionate, empathetic, thirty-something-year-old woman. Imagine my surprise when Maggie arrived for her first appointment and her therapist turned out to be a balding, 'ancient,' 'obscenely fat,' man wearing 'ridiculous red, white and blue striped glasses.' I couldn't get that female therapist to show up no matter how hard I tried. Maggie was mortified, but my curiosity was peaked. Who was this guy? What was his story?
This is where the care and feeding of secondary characters comes into play. Writers need to know them well, even if those bit players don't have a starring role. To get to know Marion Jakes, I wrote a short autobiography of him in his own words, which is something I always do with characters who are important to a book. Sometimes I'll reveal things I learn about a secondary character in the course of a story, but in Dr. Jakes' case, I did not. After all, he has no point of view and he's a therapist. His story doesn't count, not in any overt way. He's there only to help Maggie, and help her he does, in ways she never expected. I'm the writer, though, and I wrote his mini-autobiography, so I'm privvy to his own personal story and how he came to be the man he is. I'm richer for knowing him, and I believe my reader is richer because I know him so well.
It was fun for me to create him. I think I was a good therapist, but I would be a much better one now, these many years later. With apologies to all you young therapists out there, wisdom comes with age and there's no way around it (don't worry! You too will be old one day). There are elements to Dr. Jakes that I never possessed as a therapist and that I really like in him. Now that I think of it, I may have been working through some of my own issues with him, becoming through him the therapist I would have liked to have been. I guess Maggie was, in some ways, my own client.
Well, I had no idea I was going to go off on that tangent when I started this post! That's very much the way it is when I'm writing a book: I never know where I'm going to end up. That's also the way it is with secondary characters. You think they're going to be simple people, easily ignored, but they surprise you when you least expect it.
And you're very, very lucky when they do.