Secondary characters can layer your plot with tension and add depth to your world. Unlike the hero and heroine – who in theory deserve their HEA by the end of the book – the other characters’ fates are not predetermined. Will the Plot B heroine get her guy? Does she deserve it? Is she ally or double agent? We don’t know. Cue the music. Da-da-da-DUM.
But “morally ambiguous character” is not the same as “wildly unpredictable plot fodder”. If done intentionally, fine. Sending mixed signals to other characters and the reader about a secondary character can reveal their internal conflict and build tension. If done poorly – or worse, as the result of careless writing – such characters erode trust between you and your reader.
My favorite example of confusion-done-well is not a character but the story structure of a movie. In “Pulp Fiction” the scenes are in non-chronological sequence, but the audience is never truly confused – we know we’re in good hands. The structure serves the story, and thus, we as viewers can relax and enjoy the ride.
It’s different when we’re confused because the director or author isn’t delivering on their promise about a character – or can’t even articulate what the promise is.
I’ve been kept up at night worrying - and not in a good way - about the fate of a secondary character, the wife of an alpha shifter in a Series That Shall Not Be Named. She is a perfect example of how sending mixed signals backfires on the reader and undercuts the credibility of the morality of the world she lives in. To protect the innocent, we’ll call her Rachel.
The setup: Paranormal shifter series. They live long or forever (as long as they don’t get the ol’ head chop choppy). Sort of Urban Fantasy because there is one main couple throughout the series, but the point of view is third person and switches between a few characters. The crime and the evidence, after the jump: