Nancy: Secondary Characters Are People, Too

Humans are (for the most part) social creatures. We live, work, and interact among other people every day. To be believable, primary characters in our novels should live in worlds with other people, as well. Hence our need to build worlds for them that include secondary characters.

But filling out our stories with secondary characters isn’t as simple as randomly dropping in the wacky best friend or meddling mother or curmudgeonly boss. Secondary characters aren’t window dressing to make the primary characters’ lives look well-rounded.

Secondary Characters - Why Am I Here

Like every other aspect of a book, they should serve the story. We should be able to answer the question, why is this character here? In addition to looking pretty, or ugly, or menacing, each secondary character should do something: enhance the plot, underscore the theme, complicate the protagonist’s life, all of the above – something that wouldn’t happen if that character were taken out of the story. So what happens if you’ve created a convenient friend or foe or foil for your protagonist, but other than convenience, that character accomplishes nothing in your story?

I faced this with a do-nothing secondary character in my WIP. Sarah  is one of my protagonists, and her Southern-belle-with-tiger-claws mother Linney is her antagonist, the one blocking her goals at every turn. And then there was Sarah’s father, a respected and successful attorney who stood by and watched his wife torment their grown daughter. I couldn’t figure out what his problem was. And as a hotshot attorney, his penchant for keeping his mouth shut just didn’t seem to suit his profession. Only after I realized that this character should not appear on the page, in fact, should have died prematurely years before the story even begins, did his silence finally make sense. And more than that, his very absence helps explain the dynamic between this adult daughter and her overbearing mother.

As important as it is for secondary characters to do something, they should also be something. By that I mean they should be people in their own right, with lives and goals and problems of their own. If a secondary character is interesting, readers will relish the scenes when s/he appears as opposed to skipping past those pages. Think about how complex and therefore intriguing Snape was in the Harry Potter series. He had secrets and goals and motives of his own, some of which we didn’t learn until the end of the series. But whether he was foe or friend, villain or hero in any particular scene or book, he was always interesting. I would bet that very few readers of the series skipped past scenes with Snape in them. He kept us riveted.

So what do you do if you’re reading through your first (or fifth or tenth) draft and you run into a secondary character doing a passable imitation of a potted plant? First, you need to determine whether the character even belongs in the book. Is there a reason, other than convenience or the writer’s affection, for him or her to be there? If the answer is yes, that they can be a fully functioning and contributing character if you just give them some love, then start by giving them a goal, something to strive for throughout the story. Take a deeper dive, using a character questionnaire to learn more about who they are, what they want, and why they are taking up valuable page space in your book. Apply the tools you use for your main characters such as the Conflict Box.

Using this last technique, I learned that Jack, one of my minor characters, has a lot going on behind his pretty blue eyes. Originally, he showed up sporadically to pass on Important Information to the protagonist. Now, after putting him through his own conflict box exercise, he is a potential romantic interest for the main protagonist, and is throwing monkey wrenches into her goal of accomplishing her Plan, which includes finding the ‘right guy’ who would be, of course, nothing like Jack.

Secondary characters should do more than populate our main characters’ worlds. They should bring something to the party that makes our guests, the readers, want to stay for a while. And if they’re written really well, secondary characters might be among the things readers remember most about a fictional world long after they’ve finished the book.

What secondary characters have you loved (or loved to hate)? What made them so memorable to you?

9 thoughts on “Nancy: Secondary Characters Are People, Too

  1. True, secondary characters should have their own spotlight. I personally like Luna from HP because she’s like that quirky little voice in your head. She has her own strange personality that makes her unique and like-able.

  2. And Luna has her own view of the world, which allows her to see things others don’t. So many great secondary characters in that world:-).

    • IIRC, Luna moves the plot forward several times, too. If she were missing, there’s be a big plot hole there.

      On the negative side, a friend of mine convinced me to watch Elementary (the US network version of the Sherlock Holmes stories — the one where Dr. John Watson is Dr. Joan Watson). The first several episodes were not crafted very well. Joan had a boyfriend drop in during episodes two and three, IIRC, and he had no purpose besides showing that Joan had once had a life. He should have been throwing monkey wrenches into the plot of that episode, but he didn’t do much at all.

      That’s one terrifying thing about serial fiction (TV, magazine or blogs) — you don’t always know where the end point is, so sometimes the choices you make in the beginning can really start to hem you in. At least with a rewrite, you can go back and scrap that boyfriend, or make him into something else.

      • I agree, that’s frustrating when a character isn’t used to full potential. At least with a series there is always the chance they could bring him back in a later season to actually do something!

      • I kind of wonder if that was the point. The writers at that time wanted to “seed” the series with an ex-boyfriend, just in case they needed him later. Or they needed to show that Joan wasn’t gay. IDK. In the first case, maybe he should be mentioned. In the second case . . . wtf? It doesn’t matter to her character during the first season. She’s asexual then because of trauma, and I think I read somewhere that the writers wanted to relationship between Holmes and Watson to be a slowly growing friendship, not an incipent romance.

        (-: The writing suddenly got better midway through season one. I’m not sure what happened.

  3. Jack sounds promising, Nancy, I like the sound of him!

    I read a lot of romance, especially series, and I always pay attention to promising secondary characters as they’re candidates for a starring role in a later story. I love this if it’s a natural progression from a well-built world. I hate it if it feels mechanical and a character seems to have been added as a device to set up the next book.

    There are some wonderful secondary characters in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. My impression is that DD cared most about the characters that her hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, loved. Lymond’s family and friends are very well-developed and do moving and surprising things. Some of his enemies feel one-dimensional in comparison. Apart from Francis himself, my favourite is the amazing Philippa, who gets the best arc in the whole series. In the first book she’s almost a footnote – a clever, clumsy child, blink and you’d miss her. By the sixth book she’s a star- beautiful, brilliant, resourceful, determined, and the perfect match for Lymond. Damn. Now I want to go and re-read those books.

    • This sounds like a great series! Lately, I’ve been on a quest for new (to me) writers. Now I am adding Dunnent to my list 🙂

  4. Very true and well said. The secondary characters are really what make a story. They give it the depth and the reality that help us feel that we are in the stories ourselves.

    My personal favorite is Severus Snape. It’s just like you said, “He had secrets and goals and motives of his own, some of which we didn’t learn until the end of the series. But whether he was foe or friend, villain or hero in any particular scene or book, he was always interesting. I would bet that very few readers of the series skipped past scenes with Snape in them. He kept us riveted.”

    I love how JKR has us going up and down and back and forth with him all through the series. It really makes the books so much fun…and then when you know his whole story it adds a whole new level to the books.

    ~Aspen

  5. And by making Snape a well-rounded (if mysterious) character from the beginning, she could continue to mine the depths of the character for the rest of the series. As Jilly mentioned, a fictional world that includes rich minor characters can draw readers back for each new book in a series.

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