Secondary Characters Have a Life of Their Own

We all need a supporting cast in our novels. Secondary characters have to be in there, unless your book is about a guy stuck on a deserted island the entire time. But even in that instance, an animal or even a volleyball (sorry, had to put that in there from Castaway) can play the role of a secondary character. There are plenty of great movies where even the hero is an animal (The Incredible Journey is one that comes to mind) or something not human. but whether your secondary characters are human, feline, canine, or bovine, they need to be fully human in their characteristics (well, maybe cats can getting away with just saying no).

They Stick in Your Mind

Suffice it to say, I don’t read a whole lot of manuscripts that have many terrific secondary characters. and I struggle with creating good ones in my novels. The tendency is to throw someone in there as a vehicle to bring out the plot or reveal aspects of the protagonist’s personality, but when we do that, the reader can sense it. I love a great book in which a secondary character almost steals the show. Right away I think of Fermin, the oddball street guy in Zafon’s best seller The Shadow of the Wind. His performance throughout the book riveted me without taking away from the story in any way. Another character that has stuck with me for decades is Le Cagot, a Basque nationalist and lunatic in Trevanian’s novel Shibumi. If you haven’t read those terrific novels, I highly recommend them.

Think about Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick Watson. My husband and I have watched just about every Sherlock Holmes movie and TV episode made in the past century (as well as read  all the stories many times). We even went to 221 Baker Street when we were in London–just so we could feel what it was like to walk on that street. Watson is a real character in his own right, and although he can hardly overshadow such a larger-than-life character like Holmes, he does stand out as a well-rounded person because we see who he is apart from Holmes. He has a life when Holmes is gone (which he tends to do a lot).

Tell Them to Get a Life

This is what you want to think about as you create and develop your secondary characters. They do not live for your protagonist; they all have lives that take place in their world when they are not in those scenes with your lead player. The more you can give them a life outside the novel’s scenes, the better. Don’t just give them a past and some physical attributes. Spend some time thinking about what their life is now. Ask: What would this character be doing if you removed the protagonist from the story? What would their life look like? What problems are they facing in their personal life right now? Giving them a problem that is unconnected to the plot is a great element to add. Why? Because now you have a subplot. And don’t just give them any problem; think of something that can tie in with your theme and enhance the main plot. This is what secondary characters can do best.

Make Their Needs Clash

Here’s an example. Let’s say you are writing a novel about a woman named Debby who is struggling with infertility issues. Her goal is to get pregnant, and she’s in despair trying everything to conceive. Her need is destroying her marriage and affecting her job performance. But she is so grateful for her best friend Joan. Joan isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, and she’s been BFF (best friends forever) with Debby since kindergarten. Now, Joan’s got a boyfriend who is pushing the relationship, and she’s not sure how committed she is. Whereas Debby’s been married for some time and is committed, but her husband is pulling away (kind of the opposite). Just when things are really falling to pieces with Debby (who may not be letting on just how badly she wants to have a baby), Joan accidentally gets pregnant. She’s in turmoil about this because she’s not married and doesn’t want a baby at this point. What does she do? She tries to tries to keep this news from Debby, knowing it might upset her. But Debby finds out–right when Joan has decided to have an abortion.

Now you have some great conflict. Their friendship will be stretched because these two characters’ deepest fears and core needs are clashing. I’ve read a lot of books that have subplots thrown in that have little connection to the main plot. And those secondary characters involved in those subplots have a disconnect with the protagonist. What I’m trying to show here is that if you create secondary characters who have a life of their own, with their own needs and fears, and make those things clash with the protagonist’s visible and/or spiritual goal (as discussed in earlier posts), you will enrich your story a thousandfold. Don’t leave them stranded outside, waving their hands and hoping you’ll notice them. Bring them to the fore, and give them their time in the limelight.

This week, take a look at your secondary characters. Make sure you’ve created a life they live outside the novel’s main plot. Think what their story would be in your novel if your protagonist went away on vacation for a year. What would they be doing? Bring some of this into the scenes with your character. Try to come up with a subplot that clashes with the protagonist’s visible goal. This takes work, but your novel will be so much better for it!

 

13 Responses to “Secondary Characters Have a Life of Their Own”

  1. Benny H September 26, 2012 at 5:39 am #

    I totally agree with this. I’ve read a few novels where the secondary characters just kinda seem “there” and don’t really serve any purpose than conveniently forwarding the plot when needed. One thing that helps is if you use a plot planner that deal with time and think about what you’re other characters are doing when they’re not on screen.

    An example being, I’m writing a Paranormal story right now and the young witch in my story is in the hospital after being attacked by something. Her mother doesn’t at all approve of her boyfriend and refuses to let him see her. He isn’t going to be able to sneak into the hospital to see her because she’s under guard. If I hadn’t written down a timeline of events for each charater I wouldn’t have thought of a way for my MC’s boyfriend to contact her in the story and he would’ve been written off until she got out of the hospital and was back in school.

    It helped to strengthen that character by showing his love for the MC which adds a little more punch later in the story when that love becomes broken/strained.

    • Benny H September 26, 2012 at 5:41 am #

      I forgot to add, the way it strengthened the love is because writing the plot planner and timeline helped me figure out a way for him to contact her in the hospital.

  2. Jeff Miller September 26, 2012 at 6:08 am #

    This was very insightful. Thank you.

  3. linda@adventuresinexpatland.com September 26, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    I was meant to read this today! Over the past week I’ve been thinking about my secondary characters, not only in terms of how they can help move the plot forward but also in how to flesh them out more fully. I knew they shouldn’t be one-dimensional or ‘drop ins’, so I want to give them their own challenges and interests. It hadn’t occurred to me that their own dilemmas ought to tie in with my theme and enhance the main plot in some manner. More great food for thought… Thank you.

  4. Elaine Cougler September 27, 2012 at 4:10 am #

    This is such a good post, Suzanne! Especially since, like Linda, I am working on secondary characters in order to flesh out my novel. Once you have the bones of the main plot you need other threads weaving in and out to mirror real life and to make the story more believeable. Not to mention interesting!

  5. LK Watts September 27, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    Great post, Susanne. When writing all we seem to think about is our protagonist’s wants and needs but this is something else to consider.

  6. Laurie Evans September 27, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

    Great advice. I know I need to beef up my secondary characters. I like the idea of making their needs clash with the protagonist.

  7. Stacia Carlton September 28, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Great article! I couldn’t agree more. When I wrote my first novel, one of the secondary characters wound up having such a strong voice and compelling personality that he is now the primary character in my next novel! I will look forward to reading more of your blogs.

  8. Barry Hoffman October 2, 2012 at 6:15 am #

    What a refreshing article. I love the secondary characters I create and they often surprise me. In most of my novels I have a “wildcard” character. It’s someone I initially envisioned as a minor character who demands my attention, who refuses to remain in the background. Often this character becomes pivotal to my novels. I love fleshing out my secondary characters. I find them just as intriguing as the main characters in my novels.

  9. fcmalby October 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    It’s a great reminder and I like the question of what the character would do without the protagonist

  10. Alex Marestaing February 7, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    Secondary characters are so crucial. I ended up adding a secondary character in my latest novel…an abandoned house. I was expecting the house to take on a life of its own, but characters have a way of surprising you, don’t they

  11. Armada Volya February 8, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    The only secondary characters for me are the ones you see in passing for only a paragraph or two. It’s someone your main character asks directions of or bumps into on a train.
    Everyone else is a main character, because they are so important to the story.

  12. Barry Hoffman February 13, 2013 at 4:16 am #

    I agree completely that fully developed secondary characters are required for a good novel. I find that in many novels the character and motivation of the villain is disposed of in a few pages or a chapter at the most. I delve as deeply into the character of my villain as I do the protagonist. Numerous secondary characters populate my novels and some compel me to make them more significant than I initially planned. Last year I completed what I thought would be a stand-alone suspense novel. The book contained a minor secondary character who just grabbed me and demanded more attention, which I gave her. When I finished the book I was still drawn to this character so I wrote a sequel which featured the secondary character with the lead in the first book becoming a secondary character. I am now working on a third novel where another character from the first two books has likewise asked for more attention. Secondary characters help bring a book to life. They should never be neglected.

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