Today, in the midst of my morning errands, I ran into a bona fide secondary character. How do I know she was such a critter? Because she declared herself such a one openly on the phone, in the middle of the frozen food aisle. Things don’t get much more definitive than that.
Her surmise, alas, was informed by the realization that a fellow she fancied simply did not number her among the more significant humans in his life (one learns quite a lot between the Eggos and the Lean Cuisine if one only listens). While she had imagined herself as a round character in his world, one with a history, depth, and complexity, new intelligence had obliged her to revise this opinion. ‘Twas a sad day for said shopper; I hope the Toaster Strudel affords her some modest consolation.
The catch, of course, is that secondary characters in both real life and in works of fiction necessarily outnumber main characters by a healthy margin. That catch, however, hinges on how one assigns primacy and centrality in any given fiction. In life we can manage something like Dunbar’s number in terms of our network of social connections, but in that sizable clutch we can only sustain a handful of deep, complex, ongoing connections. The same holds true for novels, I think, at least judging from the comments I sometimes see on the interwebz. Readers might strongly identify with a protagonist, or they might handpick a favorite out of a small cast of regulars, but if faced with a sprawling saga that includes dozens of personalities they will sometimes become frustrated by the necessity of engaging with several characters for whom they have no patience, characters who do not interest them and defer the arrival of those who do. Reading experiences teaches us to tolerate auxiliaries and functionaries, but our engagements come with asterisks at time. Try our patience too much and we might well skim or skip ahead to get to the people we wish to witness in action.
The irony, it seems, in both life and in writing is that those secondary figures are always endowed with depth and complexity all their own, facets we never really get to see. If we introduce a messenger whose only job is to hand off a packet to our protagonist, we surely do not expect to see a great deal of prose devoted to his choices, attitudes, and actions. (This figures prominently in one of the more interesting attributes of horror films, by the by: most writers/directors know that they should endow their victims-to-be with extra dimensions in order to make their demises meaningful, but doing so can bog down the pacing or add in astonishingly awkward exposition.) Likewise, while I know the barista I see at the coffee shoppe and the student worker in the office has a fully-realized life going on, I’ll only get glimpses and impressions–a mood, an attitude, or a bit of news at most–rather than genuine depth of detail. We all get to be the main characters of our own lives, but in other lives we undergo the same semiotic shrinkage. Though it bruises the ego, I know I’m someone’s second-favorite professor or long-forgotten ex, the one who doesn’t warrant an invitation to the Christmas party or is memorable only as “that tall, bald guy.” As my friend in frozen food can attest, it’s part and parcel of the human experience.
That being said, I’d venture to guess that most writers have deep and detailed notes for any figure who makes her way into their stories–the fact that we don’t see a history laid bare, that we don’t see all the facets of such functionary figures, does not mean they’re not present and pivotal. Screenwriters generally maintain character bibles in order to chart details and developments (a must when viewers in the Twittersphere and on FaceSpace are apt to revolt in response to continuity errors or departures from an established canon), and I’ve seen writers in the library and the coffee shoppe toting around spiral notebooks to keep track of all the features and characteristics they’ve assigned to marginal figures. It’s a difficult habit to develop, in many ways, but a critical one for the sake of consistency and coherence.
What strikes me as most important about the biblical business, however, is the way in which it anchors our empathy, as readers and as humans. One need only consider the strong feelings at the conclusion of the Harry Potter series to see the wide variation in reader attachments to characters, attachments that depend heavily on prior encounters with and feelings for those figures. If readers shed tears for a Dumbledore, Tonks, or Snape, it’s because they had some sense of the depths beneath those surfaces, even if they (by which I mean “we”) filled those depths with their (“our”) own imaginings. The same holds true for humans, though we are often hard pressed to acknowledge it. The barest exercise in empathy–any attempt to imagine what it might be like to stand in the shoes of the countless secondary characters who roam around our worlds–can yield revolutions in the way we conceive of others and ourselves.