General David Dawson is a character who appears in two of my novels: The Iranian Scorpion and Hidden Battlefields. He is the father of Robert Dawson, the principal character, a US Drug Enforcement Agent in both books.
Why is he there? Several reasons. He is a different character than Robert; he is impulsive, hot-tempered, impatient, and something of a womaniser; traits which Robert does not share with his father. But David is also brave (a decorated military commander), intelligent and ambitious; attributes which are visible in Robert, too. The general’s relationship with his son is complex. On the one hand, he is disappointed that Robert did not follow him into a military career. He wonders, sometimes, whether his son is worthy of his heritage. But at the same time, he feels genuine affection for his only son and admires his accomplishments as a DEA agent. There is also a love rivalry between the two men for a very attractive woman. This rivalry begins in The Iranian Scorpion and reaches crescendo pitch in Hidden Battlefields. In this situation, David’s wild impulsiveness, and Robert’s cool-headedness come into play.
Most readers will admire the general when he strays off his assignment as a nuclear weapons inspector in Iran, but one cannot be astonished when his impetuousness gets him into serious trouble. Similarly, in Hidden Battlefields, he places himself in situations where his military skills are called for, but are not always used to the best advantage.
Robert’s mother is mentioned in The Iranian Scorpion as an embittered ex-wife, but she re-appears in Hidden Battlefields as a happily re-married woman who successfully takes some control over her ex-husband in a situation where Robert has no levers to pull.
So for me, the secondary characters in a novel help to define the values and the personality of the main characters. Secondary characters also add depth and interest to a novel; without them, at best, a book becomes two dimensional. In addition, they are usually essential to the progress of the plot, and, as in both of the above novels, they help the author express a theme. The Iranian Scorpion, is about what it takes to succeed in a challenging situation: more than a intelligence, a plan and courage: it takes attention to detail and luck, as well. In the case of Hidden Battlefields the theme is that while we as individuals have major, un-resolved conflicts going on in our heads, we cannot reach our full potential as human beings.