The Importance Of Secondary Characters

The other day, I posted some tips for creating memorable characters. Most writers focus their attention on their main characters, and rightly so, but at times they do it at the expense of secondary characters. Here are a few thoughts on how to create a robust cast of secondary characters:

1. Don’t be afraid of a secondary character becoming a break-out character. We hear all the time that we have to be careful that secondary characters don’t end up overshadowing our main characters. I agree with that . . . and I don’t. Haymitch and Finnick from The Hunger Games series, Richard Harrow from the TV series Boardwalk Empire, Ben Linus from the series Lost: these kinds of characters should happen to all of us.

2. Remember they are on their own journey, the same as the main character. In other words, if your secondary characters are there just to prop up the main characters or for the purpose of exposition, get rid of or retool them. They should have their own goals and sense of purpose.

3. This is where character charts may come in handy. I declared my lack of love for character charts in my previous post, but abbreviated charts can be helpful for keeping track of details to do with secondary characters. This is especially true if you are writing a series or an epic with a large cast of characters. There’s a reason authors like Ken Follett and George R.R. Martin include character lists with their books, and it’s not just to help out the reader. More than likely, they created them to save themselves some confusion.

4. Give your secondary characters distinctive names. This is a pet peeve of mine–writers giving secondary characters forgettable names, which makes it easy for the readers to forget them. Or worse, they give the secondary characters very similar names. They’ll have Susie and Sally and John and Ron and Tom and Ted–you get the idea.

They don’t have to be weird or fancy names, just something about them should be memorable. Richard Harrow is a memorable name. (I love how it connects to his character: he had a harrowing experience during the war, and his life afterwards is still harrowing.)

5. Use your secondary characters sparingly. Here’s how to avoid letting kick-ass secondary characters take attention away from main characters. Limit their appearances in the story as much as you can. Of course, they may be with your main characters for much of the story, but keep the focus on the main characters. Shine the spotlight on the secondary characters only when you must.

Richard Harrow doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time on Boardwalk Empire, but when he takes center stage, it really counts.

6. Just like main characters, secondary characters are about contradictions. Richard Harrow is a killer who dreams of a normal life with a wife and children. Ben Linus is a master manipulator who believes what he does is for the greater good. Haymitch is a sarcastic drunk who is trying to drown the pain of watching many friends die. Compose your secondary characters the same way as your main characters.

7. Just like the main characters, secondary characters should surprise us. One of my favorite scenes in Gone With The Wind is when Scarlett kills the Yankee soldier. Melanie sees what she’s done and says, “I’m glad you killed him.” Sweet, kind Melanie, who seems to see the good in everyone, surprises the reader by showing a different side to her nature.

Again, remember that secondary characters are on their own journey. Even if she is the loyal sidekick, there are points when she can be at cross-purposes with the main character(s) or surprise them–and us.

8. Don’t assign them one distinctive feature or quirk and call it a day. Yes, Richard Harrow has one very distinctive thing about him: half his face was blown away in the war and he wears a mask that covers the injury. But that’s not where the writers stopped in creating his character.

Even minor characters are more than a rough sketch with one interesting detail. Fill in the details and you will have an amazing cast of characters.

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3 thoughts on “The Importance Of Secondary Characters

    1. That is a great point! (I wish I had thought to add it to this post.)

      There was a perfect example of this in the most recent episode of Boardwalk Empire. Main character Nucky asks Harrow if he ever thinks about the people he’s killed. Harrow replies that Nucky already knows the answer to that.

      Definitely an instance of a secondary character illiminating something about the main character.

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