One of the marks of a great secondary character is the feeling that the character could be a protagonist in his or her own stories. The best example I can think of is Felix Leiter of the James Bond series. Played (or written) successfully, one has the impression that in another universe there are stories about him that are at least as compelling as those of James Bond.
When I started writing The Dragon Kaseraak, I had a pretty simple template to follow. I had a few characters drawn up. The plot was a basic MacGuffin story. Some characters (e.g., Anna, Kaseraak, Isabella) had specific roles, but others did not. I was exploring back then, hoping to find something that stuck.
Sycosina Soulbane was the character that stuck. She was an overwhelming favorite of the people who talked to me about the book, and I knew that she fit the mold of the character who was interesting enough to carry a story by herself.
The initial premise was simple. Sycosina was a fearsome necromancer. Other than the Ancient Dragons, there was little doubt that she was the most powerful person in the Kaseraak universe. The first book gave several clues about her, but didn’t explain any of it. She was a mystery.
There was the prediction that one day, Jana would become her apprentice, something about which neither Jana nor Sycosina ever expressed doubt.
She lived in the middle of a circular clearing in a dense forest, a barren circle in which nothing would grow.
Anna was deathly afraid of her.
Her role in the first book was rather small. After that, though, she played a major role in each of the subsequent five books. At times she worked with Jana and Jamie, at others, she worked against them.
Jana clearly has some sort of affection for her. Early on, she explained it to Anna. Sycosina was the dread enemy of the kingdom and practically everyone in it. Jana came to understand, somehow, that there was more to her than that. In many ways, she sees herself as Sycosina, becoming the next enemy of the kingdom. There is a kinship between the pair.
I remember listening a few days ago to my daughter talking about the difficulty of dealing with powerful characters. In one of her stories, she had a character that was more or less invincible. I saw the parallels to Sycosina almost immediately. I remained quiet, but there are specific things one can do, and I think has to do, to keep such a character interesting.
At various points in the story, Sycosina shows off her power in individually defeating an entire squadron of trained troops. She is as close to invincible as anyone in the stories. But to keep her interesting, she has corresponding weaknesses. She did not ask for her power. She doesn’t know exactly what to do with it. She lacks confidence. It is for these weaknesses that she comes to rely and depend on Jana—who, for all her faults, is much more sure of herself and her powers.
I sometimes think about rewriting the stories from Sycosina’s perspective.
Outside of Jana and Jamie, Sycosina is the only character with a significant role in the conclusion of each of the six books in the series. In many ways, I think she holds the stories together and gives them life. In some ways, the stories are as much about her as they are about Jana or Jamie.