Often as writers we spend so much time perfecting our main characters — describing them, thinking up actors/actresses that resemble them, developing their back stories and family life, favorite music and movies and cars, and maybe even their genealogy back five generations — that we neglect another very important group of characters.
Our secondary characters.
I don’t mean the ones that get listed as “Waiter” or “Subway Rider 1” in the credits. I mean the ones that have names and faces and quirks and personalities and lives. We know they play a big role in our stories, but maybe we sort of don’t think they’re quite as important as our MCs. Right? I mean, they’re not driving the story. It’s not their choices that get us from Point A to Point Q.
Or is it?
Right now, I want you to think about your favorite three books (or movies, or TV shows), and then think about the secondary characters in them. Not all of the, but maybe the MC’s best friends. Envision them in your mind. What do they look like? Sound like? How do they behave? Do they talk with an accent, or use particular slang? What’s their job? Do they have a family? Pets? My guess is that you were able to answer all those questions immediately. And that’s because good authors know the value of those secondary characters.
I’m struggling with this right now, so it’s a good thing for me to think about, too! So let’s look at some secondary characters from some of my favorite books, and see what they do and why they’re memorable.
1.) Cookie Kowalski, from Darynda Jones’ Charlie Davidson series. I picture Cookie immediately, because Darynda Jones does such a great job of describing her from the get-go. She’s divorced with a 12-year old daughter who may or may not be psychic. She has a crush on Charlie’s uncle. She reads romance novels. She’s smart and efficient, and slightly overzealous when it comes to protecting Charlie. She’s Charlie’s secretary/researcher/coffee maker. She provides Charlie with the information she needs to close cases (sometimes), and she knows Charlie is really the Grim Reaper. So she also fulfills the role of Secret-Keeper. 🙂
2.) Pretty Much Everybody, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I know, I know, it’s not fair when there are movies, but the entire reason we connect to those movies is because Rowling did such a masterful job of detailing ALL of her secondary characters! How many of us bawled out eyes out when (spoiler alert!) Dobby died? And Fred? And Sirius? We knew exactly what the Weasley family was like, and we’d recognize Hermione and her bushy hair anywhere. Plus, think how much help Harry gets from his secondary characters. Who provides all the knowledge? Hermione. Who’s there fighting alongside him? Ron. And Dobby. And Fred and George. And Ginny. You can do a LOT worse than to study how Rowling creates her secondary characters and utilizes them.
3.) Lord John Grey, from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I hated John when I first met him! Today, I can’t fathom why. I know what he looks like — that blond hair, those gray/blue eyes. He’s tall, but not as tall as Jamie. He carries himself like an aristocrat. He rides well. He’s smart and self-deprecating and fiercely protective of those he loves. Because of this, he takes in Jamie’s illegitimate son and raises him as his own. But he has his own secrets and his own conflicts. We know his entire backstory. Gabaldon even devoted a series of novellas just to him.
4.) Again, Pretty Much Everybody from Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series. Butcher, like Rowling, has a knack for developing secondary characters that help drive the plot forward, while at the same time becoming people readers care about. And they constantly surprise us. They evolve and grow along with Harry, adapting to new circumstances, living their own lives (and sometimes, losing their lives).
5.) Dani O’Malley, from Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series. She’s fourteen. She gets on my nerves sometimes. She’s superfast. She has red, unruly, curly hair and freckles. Her favorite word, apparently, is “pissily,” and if she says it one more time, I will reach through the page and slap her. She doesn’t know her own limits, her ego is the size of China, and she’s sarcastic and alone and prefers it that way. She is the perfect foil for MacKayla Lane, in other words.
And sometimes, that’s what a secondary character needs to be — a foil.
Secondary characters need to perform different roles. Some, like Hermione and Ron, are there to support your MC in everything that he does. Some, like Lord John Grey, perform more complex roles. And sometimes, like Dani, they change roles. Your secondary characters must be as alive and vibrant as your MC. They must have lives that don’t necessarily revolve around your MC. They aren’t there just for ‘hero support.’ They’re there to drive the plot forward as well.
Does your MC have to do everything? Sometimes we think they do! But how much research did Harry Potter ever really do on his own? Virtually none. Hermione was there to give him the answers. Don’t be afraid to give your secondary characters something to do. Make them an expert in something the MC needs to know. Put them at cross-purposes with your MC. Think about the world your MC inhabits. If they’re a detective, then they will be interacting with police officers, coroners, reporters, victims, perpetrators, clients. If your MC is dealing with the supernatural, what sort of creatures will they encounter? If she’s a historian, she’ll deal with librarians, other researchers, archivists, private collectors, students, professors. Now. Of these, which step forward (in your mind) as potentially great secondary characters? Flesh them out just as you would your MC. Know them as well as you would your MC, especially if they’re going to be recurring in a series.
Like I said, I’m learning this the hard way. But I am learning it. So I’m going to be learning much more about my secondary characters over the next month or so. Hopefully, if you need to, you will be, too. 🙂
Here’s some online articles about creating memorable secondary characters: