Secondary characters are incredibly important to a story – ESPECIALLY a character who will be your protagonist’s close friend. It’s rare that I read a novel where the protagonist doesn’t have at least one strong ally, even if they tend to be loners. In YA and NA titles especially, I think it’s important the protagonist have a reliable friend, both because it helps the main character out as well as lets (teen) readers know it’s okay to ask for help when you need it from those who will support you.
Friends are a support group. Friends give you a shoulder to cry on or confront your bullies or hold your hair back after partying too much because they care about you. You love them in a way that’s different from loving your family because you choose each other. (They got you through high school and college, for god’s sake.) There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my friends (except maybe jail time) and it should be no different with your characters. Readers may be reading a fantasy story, but they expect believability in their characters. Just as we laugh, cry, and defend our friends, so must our protagonist and their friends.
Secondary characters might not be the focus of your novel, but they’ll grow to be just as important as a protagonist. Without them, your main character might not get very far. For example, in GIFTED, Lucy befriends her roommate Delia and without her, Lucy might’ve given up and left the circus after a week. Delia, the secondary character, is the lifeline for Lucy’s introduction into the Donovan Circus. Through Delia, Lucy meets her new friends and coworkers, as well as gains a social life. And of course, when the battle comes into play, Lucy remembers that her friends (the secondary characters) are the reason she wants to fight. They are her family. She wants to save them and they are her reason for pushing through fear and taking on the enemy. They give Lucy the motivation to step up to a challenge. Without Delia and the others, Lucy might’ve caved and run away – and who really wants to read about a coward who stays a coward?
It’s also important to avoid cliches of a protagonist’s best friend. Readers get tired of the same old perky girlfriend. I admit, Delia is definitely a perky, helpful kind of character. She’s strong and sweet and is more than willing to do anything for her friends, including Lucy. Sounds like a lot of other best friend characters we’ve read, but that’s where it’s the writer’s job to step up and humanize the character into something different from other story characters. The idea is to make them stand out and stay away from the stereotypes. My way of avoiding that for Delia was to make her a Greek girl in an American world – she’s smart and friendly, sure, but her words and phrases get jumbled up, making readers giggle (plus Lucy becomes a sort of translator, which in turn helps them begin to understand each other’s sentences or thoughts – it solidifies their friendship because they grow to know each other so well). Delia’s quirks also include a love of sweets, specifically cookies, and while it sounds like a tiny, silly thing, it’s something that readers remember about her.
Harry Potter wouldn’t have gotten very far without Hermione and Ron. Katniss needed Peeta to get her through the crazy. Simon stuck by Clary’s side even after he discovered she wasn’t who she thought she was. See what I’m getting at? Best friends help round out your protagonist, giving them goals as well as help when they get stuck.
By the way, if you want to learn more about Delia, I’ve got a fun character interview with her here. Learn a bit more about her, including her personality, favorite things to do, and of course, learn her favorite cookie.