I recently wrote a chapter in WILLA in which an important secondary character is introduced, and his prior relationship to my female protagonist is explored a bit. By the time I finished the chapter, I was so enamored of this new character I was feeling unfaithful to my male protagonist! Which raised a question in my mind.
QUESTION: What does an author do when a secondary character looks to be out-heroing the hero of her current WIP?
ANSWER: If reasoning with him, promising him his own book if he behaves himself in this one, and outright pleading fail to reduce him to more manageable stature... go ahead and let him give being the hero his best shot. Don't hold him back.
Why? I think it will make for a better story in the end by forcing me to make my male protagonist's character arc that much stronger. We need to give our characters seriously intimidating obstacles to overcome to reach their goals and see their hopes and desires fulfilled, right? Otherwise we have a flat, ho-hum story.
Donald Maas (agent, teacher, author of THE FIRE IN FICTION) instructs writers to "make it worse" for our characters. A likeable secondary character who is a rival for a love interest, or a job position, or whatever it is the hero or heroine wants, is as great an obstacle as an antagonist who is actively working against the character.
Many of my favorite stories are peopled with strong secondary characters who don't quite steal the spotlight from the main ones, but come awfully close at times, causing me to wonder just who is going to win out (that's unpredictability, a good thing in a novel). They also leave me thinking of them long after the book is finished and put on the shelf. A recent example is Laura Frantz's THE FRONTIERSMAN'S DAUGHTER.
So my secondary character can be as heroic as he wants to be, and may he stretch me as a storyteller in the process.
Ever had a secondary character loom larger than your hero or heroine? How did you handle it? Did it change the story you were telling, or were you able to keep them in their proper place? Did you go on to write a book just for them?