Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
April 15, 2013

Cohorts, Henchmen, Villains and Red Shirts: The Care and Feeding of Secondary Characters

Writers in the Storm welcomes back Anne Cleeland to share tips on writing Secondary Characters. Anne last helped us sort through the accuracy for details of our historicals.

by Anne Cleeland

A story with compelling secondary characters engages the reader by adding another layer of interest to the story.  Whether they are sidekicks, lovers, or shadowy villains, good secondary characters help make the story three dimensional instead of flat, and also make it a lot easier to beef up that all-important word count. As an added bonus, the secondary character often provides the hero with opportunities for bantering or bickering dialogue--always a reader favorite and an easy way to establish likeability.

In most stories, however, there are certain protocols that are expected and probably should be followed when it comes to secondary characters. The writer has to be careful not to violate these unspoken rules at the risk of annoying the reader, because an annoyed reader is not a happy reader.  Here are three that work for me:

  1. Don’t kill off the secondary character everyone loves.

The death of the secondary character is often used to ratchet up the stakes.  The late, great Blake Snyder famously said that the hero’s best friend always dies around page 71 of the screenplay—it’s a tried-and-true literary device.  But the death should stir the reader’s sympathy on behalf of the hero, not make the reader feel betrayed because they’ve invested in the character.

The red-shirted crewmen on Star Trek were famous for being doomed from the start, so no one missed them when they dutifully got themselves killed by a gorn or something.

Sometimes you get the feeling that the writer was staring at his laptop, out of ideas, and decided to kill off a beloved character so as to be “edgy,” or to “allow the story to go in a new direction” (read: out of ideas.) To me, these deaths always seem too contrived; shock value for the sake of shock value and not authentic.

Examples of “good” secondary character deaths that evoked sympathy for the hero: Beth in Little Women; Rue in Hunger Games; Horatio in Hamlet; Helen Burns in Jane Eyre.

Examples of “bad” deaths that made the reader recoil:  Dumbledore in Harry Potter; Boromir in Lord of the Rings; Lady Sybil in Downtown Abbey.

2.  Don’t make the secondary character’s role unclear.

As a reader, I want to fit the character into the appropriate slot, so I don’t like it when the writer muddies it up.  No one expects Dr. Watson, Sancho Panza or Samwise Gangee to take a turn at being the hero. No one expects Falstaff to start speaking of weighty matters, and no one expects Obi-wan to start wise cracking --everyone should instead stay in role.

Exception: I suppose there is an exception to this rule when the secondary character’s role is supposed to be unclear.  Examples are The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz; Rebecca in Rebecca; Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Examples of secondary characters who break role and cause general confusion: Star Wars had more than a few, including Anakin Skywalker and Lando. You’d think an epic good vs. evil plot would stay within the lines, but you’d be wrong—and again, you got the feeling that the writers were out of ideas, and floundering around.

And speaking of which, remember Paradise Lost?  If you do, you probably remember Satan more than you do the protagonist, you-know-Who.

Peter Pan’s Captain Hook is another ambivalent villain, as is the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, or Snape in Harry Potter. Either they’re secret good guys, or they’re villains, but make up your mind, for heaven’s sake.

3.  Don’t let the secondary character outshine the hero.

Every writer knows this feeling; the secondary character develops a life of his own. The writer has a choice; beat the character back into submission, or allow him to take over the story and hope for the best, as was the case with Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, Huckleberry Finn from Tom Sawyer or Jacob Black from the Twilight series.

However, in most cases I prefer that the writer keeps everyone firmly in their chosen role. Storytelling involves certain expectations and you don’t want to cause confusion or annoyance, see Rules 1 and 2.  

Georgette Heyer wrote a wonderful book called Cotillion, where the archetypal hero turns out to be not-so-heroic, and instead the dorky secondary character turns out to be the hero. Heyer was a master, however, and caution is advised before trying this on your own.

Examples of secondary characters who outshone the hero:

Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Think about it—weren’t you just flipping the pages, waiting for him to show up again?  Amy in Little Women is another example. I know we were supposed to applaud Jo’s choice of husband, but Amy’s beat him to pieces. Lestat, in Interview with the Vampire (who arguably started this whole vampire thing), and Long John Silver from Treasure Island (what is it about pirates?)

Can you think of other rules, or examples?

TaintedAngel[1]Anne's Regency novel, Tainted Angel is due out in June (is that a gorgeous cover, or what?)

Anne CleelandAnne Cleeland holds a degree in English from UCLA as well as a degree in law from Pepperdine University, and is a member of the California State Bar.  She writes a historical fiction series set in the Regency period as well as a contemporary mystery series set in New Scotland Yard.  A member of the Historical Novel Society and Mystery Writers of America, she lives in California and has four children.

21 comments on “Cohorts, Henchmen, Villains and Red Shirts: The Care and Feeding of Secondary Characters”

  1. Great post Anne. But it does beg the question - is there only one main character/hero in each story and all the rest are secondary characters? I'm struggling in my first novel to decide which characters are main and which are secondary. There seems to be lots of different opinions on ths one.

    1. I suppose that depends on the author--I tend to have one protagonist and multiple secondary characters (old school!) but I think the same would apply to multiple protagonists.

  2. Oh Anne, what a great post! I love my secondary characters! Mine are mostly sidekicks, and I'd never dream of killing them off - I Love them too much! But I never thought about the rules . . .

    My best example of someone who broke a rule and got away with it: Nick Andros in Stephen King's The Stand. He was a strong leader, probably considered one of the main characters more than a secondary character. I've heard the story that King couldn't finish the book - it was so huge and epic that it was ponderous. Took him 6 months to figure out that he had to kill some characters....

    But as you said -- He's Stephen King. Don't try this at home.

  3. I love secondary characters, in fact I'm trying to be very careful because I see potential for two of my secondary characters to become primary characters in their own book.

    Thanks for a great book!

    1. I think that's a great way to set up a series, to have secondary characters star in their own stories. A lot of "family saga" series do just that, but you're right, it's hard to keep the secondary characters in their place.

  4. I LOATHE death for the sake of fake emotion. Killing Wash in the Firefly movie was pointless. Yes, it inspired certain behavior by others, but a good writer could have done it without killing him off.

    A good secondary character should ALWAYS be threatening to take over the reader's affections. I think the one flaw in Dick Francis' otherwise marvelous books was that the main character was the entire story, and his secondary characters almost seem props to effect the denouement. Give me more than one person to love, fer cryin' out loud!

    Here's a rule about secondary characters: if the main character is NOT someone the reader can "become" as they read (too heroic to be mortal, for instance) there had better be a secondary character we can identify with, someone we can become in the story. Most readers identify with John Watson or Archie Goodwin, as observers of Holmes or Nero Wolfe. (Some of us think we're both, but our schizoid tendencies and massive ego are another matter entirely.)

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Anne (and WitS.)

    1. Oh, Joel, you are so right. Firefly is probably my all-time favorite TV show, and I was so upset about Wash's death that it's tainted my subsequent viewings of the series. I can deal with a heroic death with a purpose, but this had no purpose other than to fulfill Joss Whedon's tendency to HAVE to kill off somebody, just because. And just about everyone else I know who's seen the series and the movie, even if they're not Browncoat-level fans, feels the same way. I feel betrayed when a book does that to me, and I tend not to read subsequent books by that author.

  5. I think that nails it, Joel--if the main character is larger-than-life than the secondary character can be an everyman, standing in the place of the reader.

  6. Thanks for giving us something to think about on secondary Characters. I tend to think of secondary characters as part of the story flesh. Our heroes would not be heroes unless they have good back up and people to see that they are heroes. Other characters make good foils too. I think yoda was the proverbial "wise one" to the young, hero in the making, Luke Skywalker.

  7. Georgette Heyer wrote a wonderful book called Cotillion, where the archetypal hero turns out to be not-so-heroic, and instead the dorky secondary character turns out to be the hero. Heyer was a master, however, and caution is advised before trying this on your own.

    Brilliant example.

  8. Great post, Anne ... and a great collection of examples. I would say my feeling about "secondary" characters is like my feeling about the third violin to the left of the maistro. Or the obo and its faint but distinct sound. The collection of characters and how they ebb and flow throughout a story is dictated not by conjuring "how to do it," but my letting them play their roles. Without that violin or obo or the kettle drum in the back, the hint of thunder and a storm moving across the horizon, we would be lost. Every orchestra needs secondary instruments to make the whole sound ... well whole. And if one dies now and again let it be a natural death 🙂

  9. I found this post useful because I've done a lot of negotiating with my secondary characters. Ike, on the antagonist side of the story, kept trying to take over. I think I managed to beat him back. But...his sidekick goes ahead and gets killed. I've always felt bad on behalf of my future readers for that death. However, it was unavoidable as it is part of Ike's change of heart, and now that I've read this post, I realize that this death actually ratchets up even more sympathy for Ike! You see how sneaky these sidekicks are? 🙂

  10. Hate to be that person that points out the one mistake in a fantastic article, but...Mercutio is from Romeo and Juliet, not Hamlet.

    Other than that, I loved this article! It made some things clear to me in my own stories--what I need to change, and what I'm doing right.

      1. All in a geeky day's work. 😀 I saw it's now Horatio. They're both great examples of secondary characters killed to evoke sympathy for the hero.

  11. Since there was already a Stephenie Meyer reference... Meyer has said several times that the character of Ian in The Host refused to be ignored and eventually began to take on a life of his own as a love interest for Wanda. I thoroughly enjoyed The Host (vs. Twilight series) primarily for Ian's character and the complexities of the Melanie/Wanda/Jared/Ian dynamic.

    When secondary characters begin to outshine the hero, I thinks its essential that the secondary character(s) evolves with (or complementary to) the main character. If that happens, the secondary character's evolution can add something deeper to the main character's development.

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved