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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Choose some of your favorite novels.
Choose two or three secondary characters and analyze their roles in each novel.
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.
Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay
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Such a clear overview, Ellen! I would add: foils and mirrors. People who have a similar trait or flaw or quest as the protagonist, but offer a contrast or variation, so things turn out differently, thus illuminating something or reflecting something back at the protagonist to further her understanding. "There but for the grace of God, go I." "Watch out or you'll end up like me!" Often, a sibling can play this role. And, of course, helpers. Think: The Wizard of Oz. The three companions aren't exactly Dorothy's best friends, but serve to embody different aspects of the quest. I'm sure there are other types too! I have a fondness for secondary characters who inadvertently create obstacles for the protagonist. They're not adversaries because it's neither purposeful nor malicious. But because of what they do, X plot twist happens ...
There was an excellent post on foils the other day at The Kill Zone. https://killzoneblog.com/2021/04/when-opposites-attract.html
Right now, the book I'm writing has a secondary character from the previous book taking his turn to be front and center. It happens a lot. They show up, fulfill their supporting/secondary role and demand their shot at center stage.
Thank you for passing along the link, Terry. I always appreciate more information.
I think our secondary characters do a lot of "heavy lifting" in our stories to help carry it along.
Foils and mirrors are great additions, Barbara! I enjoyed reading your examples.
Great examples of characters.
Thank you, Denise!
Thanks, Ellen. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.
Regarding unique names, I'd add: Make them memorable, avoiding names that might be confused -- Andrew, Anton, Angelo, for example.
Kathy, I ran into a little difficulty with similar father and son name. John and Jack.