Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Secondary Characters

Okay, I have to admit, I love my secondary characters I find them fun to create and a lot less stressful than my major characters (hero/heroine/villain).

And often, because I don’t feel restrained creating them, they blossom and become stronger than they should be – usually crying out for their own book.

Why do we have the secondary characters? I always thought they were there to help showcase the hero/heroine to the readers and to be a resource to share information with the readers.

Here’s what others have to say about secondary characters.

Carly Watters, Literary Agent has this to say about writing secondary characters.

-They should feel like they have a life of their own and are just popping into this story for a minute. Your secondary characters’ lives shouldn’t revolve around the main character’s. They should feel like they live on after the book is done.

-They should have their own motivations. How are they involved in the story other than being a friend? Think about them as being bigger than a convenient tool. They should feel organic and authentic, not a puppet of the writer and the message.

-They should contribute to the external conflict, not just be there for quiet talks over coffee. The best secondary characters aren’t merely a sounding board or a place to use dialogue when you’re tired of exposition. The best secondary characters are part of the main plot or theme, too.

-They should compare and/or contrast to your main character’s quirks and struggles. Similar characters mute stories and make them forgettable. Secondary characters and their subplots should be unique and show differences and/or similarities. Use them subtly and organically, and it will help you prove your point without hitting us over the head.

Writing secondary characters should take as much time as your main character. Make them larger than life. Write their characters sketches.

Wow – so now I have more pressure on how to write those secondary characters, because, I admit, I haven’t been doing as Carly suggested. Yes, they had a bit of a history, but they were fun to write and mostly to share information with the reader.

And here’s one more opinion on Creating Memorable Secondary Characters

Who says main characters get all the attention?

Think of Dorie in Finding Nemo.
As a secondary character, she steals the show with her humor.

Rhino, the loveable hamster in Bolt, adds panache as he cheers for Bolt and becomes endearing to us in his own right.

How about Abu from Aladdin, the kids in Incredibles?

Who can forget the old lady with a shotgun in Ratatouille?

Or housekeeper, Minnie, from The Help?

Now, how can you create a secondary character that's loveable, despicable, memorable, hilarious, endearing, or infuriating?

Give your secondary characters a fascinating backstory.

Alley Cat Pepper suggested journaling from the perspective of my antagonist over a year ago. Since then, I've done so with a variety of other characters. Getting into their heads has definitely helped me write stronger secondary characters.
Make him/her sequel worthy.

You know you've created an in-depth secondary character when readers beg for a sequel from that character's perspective. One example would be Surrender the Dawn by Mary Lu Tyndall. I so desperately wanted to read Luke's story because he was an excellent secondary character with a lot of depth.

Give them a quirky trait, particularly as they are relating to your hero or heroine.

Any character who shows up more than once should have at least a few identifying traits.
Maybe the car repairman has a nervous tic and always shakes when he's signing the receipts.

Perhaps the doctor who has diagnosed your heroine's cancer always smiles when giving bad news. Its a nervous habit.

If they are a more major secondary character, go even more in-depth with their personality.

Think of your secondary character who has the most major role in the story. Consider taking a few minutes to take an MBTI assessment on your most important secondary character. Interview your secondary character as if your his or her therapist.

The Book Buddy is a resource that has helped me increase the depth of my minor characters.

Think about motivations of this secondary character. Why do they do what they do? What are their needs? Do they have a "lie" they believe that affects the main character?

For instance, although we are each responsible for our own journeys perhaps mom believed a lie that she then "taught" to the main character during childhood. Main character has to unlearn this lie throughout her journey.

You don't have to include all these details in the story (in fact you probably shouldn't) but it can help you to understand their journey and to write more compelling scenes.

Don't forget the most compelling secondary characters don't need to be human.

Think of Dorie. Abu. The dog in The Accidental Tourist.

Pets can be believable and loveable companions to your character and have their own quirky traits.

Remember opposites attract isn't just true in romantic scenarios.

Sidekicks are often compelling and interesting because they have opposite personality traits to the main character. Think of movies with a "funny" sidekick. Danny DeVito has often played this role in the movies. These characters make us laugh. Even in the most serious books (I enjoy writing what my hubby likes to call women with issues fiction...though who among us doesn't have issues) we need a break for laughter.

A good secondary character is an emotion trigger.

Our main character typically isn't neutral toward a well-drawn secondary character. She helps draw out emotion from the main character.

Okay – wow – not what I was thinking when I decided to write secondary characters. I really have to rethink them. And I loved this line “Do they have a "lie" they believe that affects the main character?”

Hmm, and I write romantic suspense. I need to work this.

What about you?
What are your thoughts on secondary characters?



  1. I too love my secondary character. I've even had a reader write me to tell me how sad she was when one of my secondary characters was murdered. She really wanted to hear her story. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Some of my secondary characters steal the show! I love the insights into the secondary character motivation. :)

  3. My secondary characters are what make my heroine better-through the dialogue, their conversations, the flaws and all. Good topic.