Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 21, 2019

Use Secondary Characters to Sway the Reader

by Becca Puglisi

As writers, we all know how difficult it can be to win readers over. The writing has to be strong, the events realistic, the characters well-rounded, etc. etc. We know the list of barriers to reader engagement, and there are ample resources available to address the usual suspects.

But what if that barrier is a pivotal piece of the story itself? Maybe the main character is an unsympathetic one that readers aren’t likely to empathize with or root for. Or we might be taking a political or social stance on an issue that many readers find unappealing.

Situations like these add another layer of complexity because for people to read that story, their perspective must first be challenged. We have to get them liking the miserable protagonist. We have to present a current event from a different angle that gets them thinking about it in a new way. Without that shift in perspective, readers won’t buy in, and the story, no matter how well it’s written, is going to gather dust.

So how do we make that happen? One of the easiest ways is by using the rest of the cast.

This became clear to me during the latest season of Stranger Things. Max’s stepbrother Billy has never had a whole lot going for him. He’s abusive and treats everyone like crap. When he comes on the scene in season two, viewers universally don’t like him very much.

But season three adds a new dimension to his profile: sex appeal. Like, massive. But how? How do we get from What a jerk to Dude, he’s totally hot in such a short span of time?

And then it hit me. It’s the cast. Viewers fell in line because of the rest of the cast.

The high school girls in Hawkins were already swooning, and that’s to be expected, because Billy’s got the whole Bad Boy thing going on. But writers upped the ante in season three. The first episode finds Billy working as a lifeguard at the local pool, where all the neighborhood moms have come to ogle him. The moms are ogling. They’re putting on their skimpiest suits and timing their arrival so they can eye him over their Ray-Bans as he makes his entrance. Every female over a certain age is suddenly drooling over Billy Hargrove.

This was fascinating to me because I never really thought of him as sex symbol material (awesome car and Screw You attitude notwithstanding). But we all bought into it because the rest of the cast told us to. If they’re all saying the same thing, and we haven’t seen it, then we must have missed something. And we should, therefore, get on board. Peripheral characters can be super influential in this way. If you need to sway readers’ opinions about a character, use the rest of the cast to lead them where you want them to go.

Interestingly enough, this method works just as well for ideas and concepts.

One of the few books I still have from my childhood was about Robin Hood. Those stories fascinated me; I mean, he was such a good guy, looking out for the poor and fighting the dictatorial powers-that-be. I was into my teens before it fully occurred to me that the hero I’d been rooting for was a thief and a criminal.

These facts don’t stop people from loving him. The Robin Hood legend originated in the 14th century and is constantly being reinvented and explored through books, song, movie, and who knows what other formats. Most people admire him—even while believing that stealing is morally wrong and order in society should be upheld. Yet we suspend judgment in his case. Why?

Partly because the other characters in and around Nottingham all loved Robin Hood. If they weren’t venturing into Sherwood to join him, they were supporting him in his anti-establishment campaign. After all, he wasn’t stealing to benefit himself; he was stealing to help them—the impoverished and undervalued. And he’s stealing from bad guys, the ones who are actively mistreating the common people. When you look at it from their perspective, what he’s doing isn’t bad, right? It’s actually good.

And voilá! A hero is born.

I found another example of this in a recent read called The Boneless Mercies. In a Viking-esque setting, Frey leads a band of girls who make their living by committing mercy killings. Would someone in your family be better off dead? You want to die yourself? Hire Frey, and her Mercies will take care of it.

Sounds pretty out there, right? Like, how could that ever be a legitimate thing? But because the people of this world place a high value on bravery and dying a good death, and because they view the concept of mercy killings as acceptable, the idea becomes believable and a natural part of the fictional landscape. Readers may not embrace it, but it’s no longer a barrier to entry.

These examples showed me that the secondary characters in a story can be very powerful in influencing reader opinion. Authors who need to challenge the reader’s ideas can deftly wield these characters as tools. And the process is really quite simple.

First, endow the cast members with the beliefs, ideals, or opinions that you want your reader to share or at least consider. Have the rest of the characters admire the bad guy in some way. Make them sympathetic to an unpopular idea. Let them approach existing social or political ideas from a different viewpoint. The more naturally you can do this, the better. Don’t make a big statement; just show that this is normal for the cast, and it’s more likely to become normalized for the reader.

For instance, The Boneless Mercies opens with Frey’s band at work. It’s a peaceful scene, with the mark being completely at ease as Frey makes her comfortable—offering her wine, discussing the woman’s life, using soft words and gentle touches. And somewhere in the scene, we see these lines: She’d hired us herself. Her husband, children—all dead from sickness.

Without a lot of fanfare, and through the context of what’s happening, the author shows us that this woman wants to die. It’s a mercy killing, and it seems to be somewhat normal, just a matter of course. From page one, readers learn that this is part of the culture. They’re able to suspend their own judgment for this particular story.

Secondly, remember that readers will be more likely to change their stance if the author provides that all-important empathy piece. Billy Hargrove’s backstory of abuse makes it easier for us to view him positively. Robin Hood’s policy of theft and wealth distribution is more palatable because of the environment of injustice it seeks to resolve. Years of gently killing the old, feeble, and infirm have taken their toll on Frey’s Mercies, infringing on their basic human needs of esteem and self-actualization; this humanization makes them relatable and easy to empathize with. Research your setting, the character’s backstory, and their flaws and weaknesses so you’ll know which bits are most likely to pull the reader’s heartstrings, and be sure to include that information.

Listen, writing is hard. Telling a story about concepts or characters that readers find repugnant is even harder. But those stories are still worth telling. Empower your cast with the role of challenging your reader’s perspective, and the job will become a whole lot easier.

* * * * * *

About Becca

Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of books for writers—including her latest publication: a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus, an updated and expanded version of the original volume. 

Her books are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. 

17 comments on “Use Secondary Characters to Sway the Reader”

  1. Interesting post. Barry Eisler wrote about an assassin, and had to make readers accept him as the "good guy" in his John Rain novels, although he did it more via showing the man's personal code of ethics rather than via other characters. In Linda Castillo's latest book, Shamed, her protagonist has to deal with being a police officer where she doesn't have the choice to do what she and/or others might see is "for a better good" but must comply with the law.

    1. Great examples! There are definitely other ways to make this happen. The John Rain example shows how many authors get people to sympathize with their villains; show that they're working according to their own personal (albeit twisted) moral code, and you've humanized them, making them someone readers may not agree with but can at least understand.

  2. I have this exact problem with the WF I'm writing right now. The MC is cold and Bi*chy and closed off. Oh her arc will redeem her, but in the beginning, I'm counting on her Grandmother, an outrageous hippie-type to hold the reader's interest until I reveal why the two of them are how they are.

  3. Great post, Becca! In my new story I'll be employing my secondary characters to reveal why readers and the heroine should like or at least understand my MC, who might not come off as very likable in the opening. Laura Drake, I think about your character Nevada Sweet in Home at Chestnut Creek. She's anything but sweet at the beginning but others see through her and come to understand why she is the complicated person she is.

  4. Love this! In my soon-to-be-released YA novel, Sharing Hunter, one of my main characters can come across a bit strong, aggressive, even bitchy. But her best friend is the other POV, and we see through her eyes as well how loyal and wonderful the first character really is. (At least, I hope that's what readers see. 😉 )

  5. My favorite series are always those that focus on a family or community of friends. I love secondary characters, and I love it when they get to shine within the story. It makes me feel like *I* could move there and do those things, that I could fit right in. Those are the books I go back to because I want to visit with that world for a while. And yes, that community helps the main character shine like a bright star.

    1. The protagonist is obviously the star, but as you said, they so often shine because of the people around them. That contrast and comparison between characters is so important!

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