By Ellen Buikema
Secondary characters add depth and interest to the world your main character inhabits, helping to make the tale more memorable. They play a significant role in your story, but aren’t necessarily integral to the plot. These characters may be protagonists or antagonists of their own subplots.
Strong secondary characters reveal more about your primary character by, motivating, creating stumbling blocks, or helping define the setting by use of cultural clues. He or she may goad the protagonist into doing something out of character to the benefit or detriment of either of them.
These ancillary characters may become more popular than your protagonists. This happened to me in my children’s chapter books as Frankie, Charlie Chameleon’s obnoxious pet fish, became the favorite of many readers, adults as well as children. There is something about Frankie, maybe his naughtiness, that makes him relatable.
5 Tips for Secondary Characters
Help advance the plot
The subplots develop these characters’ relationships and contribute texture to the story. They need to be well rounded without extraneous details so the story doesn’t become mired and confusing.
Make them multi-dimensional
Supporting characters don’t need as much detail as you’d give to primary characters. Consider using the same character building blocks you use for the protagonist: personality, backstory, mindset, relationships . . .
Not everything you create about the secondary characters will end up in the story. But it’s better to have more than you need than not enough.
The best characters are flawed
These characters are not all good or all bad, but a combination of both. Characters that live within the shades of gray are more interesting. Consider allowing them to be self-serving to a degree. Secondary characters have needs, too.
Sometimes they're too much of a good thing
Secondary characters are a lot of fun to write. But sometimes they are so interesting that they might become overdeveloped and overtake the main character. If this happens, you can always set aside some of the story highlighting this particular character as notes for another tale. This secondary character may become a future protagonist.
If you find that you’ve created too many secondary characters, you can always combine the essences of a few of them and create a stronger, unique character with multiple dimensions.
Make them location or vocation specific
Remember when you were very young and thought the grocer lived at the grocery store or the teacher lived at school?
Connect your secondary character to one locale when possible. This will make it easier for your reader to keep track of who is who and what their relationship is to the main character. It’s no fun having to page through the book to remember who a character is. The tie between location and character helps firm that piece of information in the memory of the reader.
Other Useful Secondary Character Tips
Supporting Characters vs Minor Characters
Secondary characters can make a short appearance, sometimes only in one chapter. This individual still moves the story forward, but makes a minor impact.
Supporting characters exist to illuminate your protagonist, and through their subplots, affect the main character’s decisions. Without supporting characters, the main characters can’t achieve their goals.
Exercise to evaluate secondary characters
Choose some of your favorite novels.
Choose two or three secondary characters and analyze their roles in each novel.
- Are the characters autonomous? How?
- Are their names unique?
- Do they add tension in the story? How?
- Are they relatable? In what way?
- Do they help move the story forward? How?
5 Secondary character types
Mentors instructs, offers words of wisdom, encourages and supports the main character. They are often the impetus for the protagonist’s internal growth. In Carlos Casteneda’s Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, the Yaqui sorcerer and shaman, don Juan Matus, teaches Carlos how to perceive reality in a unique way.
The adversary creates conflict. They stand in the protagonist’s way and interfere with their goals. They create an opportunity for the reader to see the protagonist under pressure as they deal with conflict. Most of the Lannisters in A Song of Ice And Fire by George R. R. Martin are adversaries. They provide plenty of interference.
Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
The bringers of comic relief compare or contrast the protagonist’s lighter side. They add a dash of brightness and humor, highlighting how the protagonist handles funny situations, for good or ill. Bob “the skull” is a wickedly funny spirit of intellect who advises Harry, the protagonist, in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files. Bob has multiple roles of instructor, lab assistant, and provider of comic relief.
The love interest helps the main character to grow romantically. They can also create as well as provide openings for humor. They show how the protagonist deals with love, intimacy, sexuality and conflict in both negative and positive ways. Edward Cullen is the love interest of Bella Swan in Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight. What to do when in love with the undead?
The best friend brings out the main character’s feelings that might otherwise remain hidden. They show the protagonist in a close but not necessarily sexual relationship. Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger are Harry’s two best friends in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Each provides a close friendship of a different type.
As you can see, secondary characters are anything but minor.
What type of secondary characters do you enjoy most? What do you feel is the most important role of supporting characters?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.