Decoding Beta Reader Comments on Secondary Characters
At The Spun Yarn, we do Feedback better than anyone else. You choose your reader demographics. We assign three readers to provide full novel feedback, including check-ins throughout the novel, overall comments, and qualitative scores compared to our growing manuscript database. Then we find consensus, analyze, and give you actionable suggestions for what to do in your next revision.
At the Spun Yarn, we've analyzed more than 120 beta reads' worth of comments on 40 manuscripts. We've noticed trends in reader comments, and we like to think of ourselves as beta comment decoders. If you haven't already, check out our last post about decoding comments on Pacing.
In this post, we cover beta reader comments on the oft-overlooked Secondary Characters. When you're focused on building a full and complete arc for your main character, secondary characters can either get short shrift or populate the story randomly, people who just show up as you're writing the story. Dynamic, deliberately planned secondary characters are critical for a successful manuscript. Let's see what some of our readers have said about the secondary characters they've met at The Spun Yarn.
"I didn't really believe it when Character did Action."
At first glance, this looks like a comment about motivation, and it could be. It could also be a sign that your secondary character needs to be more of a person in his/her own right. One easy trap to fall into is designing secondary characters whose sole purpose is to a) act as a foil to the main character, or b) drive the plot where you need it to go.
If a reader questions a secondary character's believability, it's worth making sure this character's motivations are separate from yours, the author's. This may mean that your plot needs to change in order to create a full, complicated person (even your secondary characters should be Real), or that you need to examine more closely where your goals might align with the character's goals, and work this motivation in more elegantly.
"I wish Character had shown up earlier."
This is a really interesting comment we've seen a few times. When you look at the general mood of your work, what are each of your secondary characters contributing to that mood? Are any of them comic relief in a dark, serious manuscript? Are they a moral conscience, or a needed support to the main character? Secondary characters are a great way to add variety and interest to your book's overall tone. If they each have their own voice and world outlook, it's fantastic that readers want more of them!
When someone wants to see a character earlier, it could be a sign that something is missing from the earlier sections of your MS. Consider this character's function in the novel, and whether they could be introduced earlier, or whether there are other ways to serve that function for readers.
"Character kind of disappeared, I was left hanging."
Do all of your secondary characters have their own complete arcs, or are some characters left by the wayside? This can be an easy fix. A reader is missing a sense of closure for a particular character, and that means you as the author need to find a place to make a final reference to the character's fate, even if that fate is not integral to the main character's fate, and even if that final reference is well before your finale. In fact, readers love to have a clean mental space going into your finale. If some of your secondary characters' arcs are completed BEFORE the final scenes of the book, readers have more mental space to focus on your ending.
"Who is this again?"
When your storyworld is so vivid in your imagination, it can rapidly populate itself with vivid characters. That's great. If readers are having trouble keeping track of all of your characters, it might be worth culling them to cut the unnecessary secondary characters, or even, combining them. Every word, even in a 100k manuscript, is precious and should be driving a key element forward.
"This character is way more awesome than your main character."
Well, shit. This is probably the most important and most annoying comment you can get about a secondary character. If you trust this reader's opinion, (AGAIN, another argument for getting multiple readers to discern CONSENSUS), and are not ignoring a big problem, then either way, this means some work. If you want a kickass book you'll whine for a while, but eventually you'll get to work. So what do you do? You have three options:
- This may be about your main character rather than about the secondary character. Remember that your main character doesn't have to be as likable or even as exciting as the secondary characters, but he/she does have to be compelling. Their struggle must constantly be moving the novel forward. Make sure that your main character supplies clear tension, and long term development. If all that's happening, you could decide to give this star secondary character a bit more stage without doing a major rewrite.
- Sometimes, secondary characters force themselves onto the page, outline be damned. If a truly interesting, dynamic character has emerged, you could give them a more starring role. What would it look like to do that? If this character is so strong, he/she probably has his/her own feelings on the matter. Where would they take the novel, and is that a place you want to go? This doesn't necessarily mean giving up your protagonist, but for the brave soul, it could mean changing your plot for the better.
- Dull them up. This should be the last option to consider, but it can be valid. If your dynamic secondary character is taking up too much of the stage, it could be a case of first draftiness. Maybe some of the secondary character's scenes aren't critical to the story. If you tone them down a bit, they can retain the sparkle that made readers love them without derailing the whole darn project.
For further reading, here are a few interesting resources on secondary characters: