Strong Secondary Characters
Last month we looked at why it’s important to create believable characters for our stories. You can check that out here if you missed it. Hopefully, you’ve had the opportunity to practice some of the pointers I mentioned in that article.
This month we’ll look at Strong Secondary Characters: why we need them; why they make a difference; and how to create then write them.
Put Away the Cookie Cutter
Just as with your main characters—usually, a hero and a heroine, perhaps an antagonist/villain and/or a protagonist/mentor—readers don’t want cookie-cutter characters. They want to say, “oh, yeah, I know somebody a lot like that” without really knowing one single person. As with our main characters, secondary characters should be a conglomeration of types who remain true to themselves.
Secondary characters should have some relationship to the main character(s). They don’t have to have a connection to both leads, but at least one. Otherwise, they aren’t a secondary character. They could be a walk-on, or a tertiary character, somebody you need in the story to check out groceries or teach a class or perform an operation—but these will be characters with minimal description.
A good secondary character impacts on the main character’s story arc, helps them through it, or prevents them from getting to their goal. They are involved in the life of your main character in some way, getting together, speaking, and sharing memories. The main story plot belongs to the lead, but a secondary character could be the subject of a subplot.
While the secondary character has a backstory, it usually isn’t as important to the plot and story arc as the main character’s is. However, you should know their backstory, even if it never appears on the page, because that’s what defines their reactions and inner turmoil. However, to justify their actions, a little insight into their history can be helpful.
Make sure you create your secondary character with more than one personality trait, just as you would your main character. In truth, a secondary character is simply not the one the story is about—that’s your main character. But as in real life, we all need somebody to bounce ideas off of, to love, to hate, to spend time with.
A great secondary character isn’t a “yes” man to the main character. They can tell the story from their point of view at times, but the main character should hold the majority of the scenes. Limit the number of secondary characters so the reader doesn’t get confused, and make sure their names and characteristics are distinct from others in the story. If you find you need another secondary character, consider combining roles. For example, if you need a firefighter and a next door neighbor, make them the same person.
Secondary characters can be good, evil, or somewhere in between. Just as with creating main characters, nobody is all one way or the other. When thinking about secondary characters, look for at least one contrasting characteristic. For example, if he is loyal to the lead, show one way he is shallow or cowardly.
If you’re concerned the reader may get confused about who is who, you can limit a secondary character to one location. Perhaps she works with the lead, and they don’t socialize, so all their interaction is at the workplace. Maybe he lives next door to the lead, so they meet in their neighborhood. Or the secondary character could be a professional in the lead’s life, such as a doctor, lawyer, or librarian.
Crafting secondary characters might take up word count that’s not available, so one way to overcome that problem is to use tropes. Put a fresh spin on their character so readers will want to invest in them.
There are several kinds of secondary characters:
- Dynamic – they change a lot throughout the story – but don’t let them change more than the lead
- Static – they change little but have a substantial role throughout the story – readers will know how they will react
- Round – they reveal your main character’s true colors, sometimes presenting obstacles, but they grow alongside the lead.
- Flat – they have one unchanging trait throughout the entire story
In conclusion, like every element in our stories, secondary characters must serve a purpose. Use this checklist to make certain you have exactly the right number of supporting characters, and that they are in the scenes they need be in, and no more:
- Does the character advance the plot in ways the lead cannot?
- Are they creating conflict that keeps the lead from achieving their goals?
- Are they revealing your lead’s characterization?
- Does their presence deepen the discussion of a theme?
- Are they motivating the lead?
- Does their presence reveal elements about the story or lead?
Next month we’ll discuss how to craft convincing villains.
A hybrid author, Donna Schlachter writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published 50+ times in books under her name and that of her alter ego, Leeann Betts; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both.
She lives in Denver with her husband and two cats, finding mysteries wherever she travels. You can find her books on Amazon under both her name and that of her former pen name, Leeann Betts. Follow Donna on her website, blog, Goodreads, Bookbub, Twitter, and Facebook.