Minor Characters: can they do more?

Sometimes, you can read a book or watch a movie several time, and never notice something important in it – until one day, you see it. And that changes the entire book or movie for you.

truman show

This past week, my Philosophy class watched The Truman Show. If you’ve never seen it, it’s an awesome movie! The basic plot goes like this:  Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carey) is a normal man living a normal life, with his slightly overbearing wife, slightly overwrought mother, and slightly less-than-ambitious best friend. But Truman has one ambition:  to leave his hometown and travel. And this, the directors cannot let him do.

See, Truman was adopted at birth, and is now the unwitting star of a television program that has been running, nonstop, for 29 years. His wife? An actress. His mother? An actress. His bet friend? Say it with me . . . an actor. (Hell, half the time he’s being fed his lines directly from the show’s producer!) As Truman slowly begins to realize that his life is a total fabrication, he’s forced to confront all his fears and – eventually – the unknown world.

My Philosophy students watch this to better understand certain philosophical questions and theories – Plato, Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, even Camus comes up in discussion. Of course, as a writer, I look at it from a slightly different perspective. For Truman, everyone is an antagonist; everyone is out to keep him from his goal of finding his lost love and sailing away to Fiji.

Or are they?

See, this is where that whole ‘watch something a hundred times . . .’ thing comes in. There is one character – a very minor character – who, I finally realized, isn’t actually trying to hinder Truman at all. And that character is the bus driver.

bus driverYup. Bus driver.

In one scene, Truman attempts to escape Seahaven by taking the bus to Chicago – which, of course, cannot happen because a.) the entire show is filmed inside a huge dome, and b.) you can’t let the star escape. The poor bus driver is ordered to figure out a way to stop the bus from leaving, and intentionally strips the gears. As everyone else gets off the bus, he looks back at Truman – still sitting in the back, with his little plaid suitcase – and then walks back to him and says, “I’m sorry, son.”

You think, at first, that he’s merely repeating a line. What else would a bus driver say, after all?

But later in the movie, when it’s discovered that Truman has escaped in a sailboat and is trying to find a way out, the producers order the ferry to be launched. The bus driver (who has no name, apparently), is brought to drive the ferry and – voila. Strips the gears.

Coincidence? I’ve read essays about the show that claim this is about white superiority and ensuring that the only non-white character really shown is ignorant and incompetent – but you know what? I think that’s total BS.

I think the bus driver did it on purpose. 

And, I think he did it to help Truman. 

soapboxHere, give me my soap box. That’s better. 🙂

I think he is the only character, in the entire movie (except for Truman’s true love), who has any sense of decency, compassion, or morality. Everyone else has to be pushed to the absolute outer limits of murdering Truman before they call it quits! But not the Bus Driver. Here, I’ll capitalize his title. 🙂 It only took me what, a dozen times of seeing this movie to figure it out? But. I think this is a very subtle, almost Easter-egg-like, thing the movie’s writers slid into the script. Maybe the Bus Driver really can pilot the ferry. Who knows? The point is, he didn’t. I think he took his opportunity to give Truman a fighting chance to escape. Had the ferry started up, they would have caught Truman, and that would have been the end of it. But because the ferry couldn’t run, Truman had his chance to escape. And he does it in a way that is totally in keeping with his character and the show’s plot.

And suddenly, what looks like a random, rational event that helps Truman escape becomes a real plot point. From a minor character, no less!

So. The question becomes, how can your minor characters change the odds for your main character? For better or worse? Is there any place where a minor character can drop a hint to your MC, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time? Say something, randomly, that jogs a memory or makes a connection? Provide them with some bit of knowledge they need for their journey? JK Rowling does this a lot – small, seemingly insignificant things in the beginning of the book become Very Important later on, and almost all of them are from secondary – sometimes, even minor – characters.

So think about those throwaway characters. Can you give them a little heart and soul? Can you give them a real reason to be there?

Just some food for thought. 🙂

‘The Quiet Man’ and Secondary Characters Revisited

I’ve been struggling with my young adult novel, and whenever I find myself floundering, I turn to writing books to kick-start the brain, and look at things from a different perspective. This time, I picked up The Breakout Novelist:  How to Craft Novels That Stand Out and Sell by Donald Maass.

One thing I was struggling with was my secondary characters. I don’t know why exactly, but in my previous novels, my secondary characters have been great – they come onstage, they fulfill their roles, and sometimes they even take over scenes. They have voices, backgrounds, traits, goals and dreams. They both further and hinder my protagonists. Which is precisely what a good secondary character should do. But in my YA novel – not so much!

Maass emphasizes that your secondary characters need a purpose. Are they there to be sidekicks to your MC, like Ron and Hermione were for Harry Potter? Are they there to be your MC’s antagonists (like Draco Malfoy)? How do they further the plot, and what role do they play in that (Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Mad-Eye Moody)? If your secondary characters don’t do anything other than be a talking head (unless you’re talking about Bob the Skull from Harry Dresden), then there’s room for improvement.

the quiet manAs I mulled this over (and continue to mull this over), I was delighted to find one of my favorite movies on TV yesterday – John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, it’s about an American boxer who goes back home to Ireland after a tragic incident in the ring, and falls in love with the sister of the town bully. I love this movie – it’s so well-written, so wry and funny. It’s got great tension and conflict. But what struck me as I watched it yesterday is how much the secondary characters play a role!

Sean Thornton (John Wayne) arrives in Ireland to find Michaleen O’Flynn waiting for him at the train station. He’ll be Sean’s sidekick, giving him sage advice, acting as his mediator, and educating him on the social conduct of Ireland (“‘Tis a bold, shameful man you are, Sean Thornton! And who taught you to be playing patty-fingers in the holy water?”) 🙂

Then there’s Will Danahur, the brother of Mary Kate, Sean’s love interest. A typical selfish bully, Danahur has one weakness:  he’s in love with the Widow Tillane. When Sean outbids Danahur on a cottage (owned by the Widow Tillane), he swears vengeance, and when Sean asks for Mary Kate’s hand in marriage, he denies the request.

Enter two more secondary characters, the Reverend Playfair and Father Lonergan. Together with Michaleen, they plot to get Danahur to change his mind by insinuating that if he got Mary Kate out of the house, the Widow Tillane might be willing to marry him. (“Two women in the house. And one of them a redhead.”) That’s not Sean’s doing! He knows nothing of it. These three take it upon themselves to change the fates of all involved. And it works – sort of. Danahur relents, only to screw things up at the wedding and then refuse to give Mary Kate her dowry. Without that, she can’t consider herself truly married.

Notice how little Sean does here? He’s the title character, but it’s this lovely cast that does the major work! Why? Because Sean’s afraid to fight. He killed a man in the ring – he didn’t mean to, but he refuses to risk it again. It’s not until he finally realizes his marriage – and his reputation – are in jeopardy that he stands up to Danahur and they have their major sprawling donnybrook (“Marquis of Queensbury Rules!”). Mary Kate, secure in the knowledge that her husband really does love her, simply saunters off, calling over her shoulder that she’ll “have the supper on when you get home.”

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2THIS IS HOW YOUR SECONDARY CHARACTERS SHOULD BEHAVE. They need to give your protagonist something to react to. If it feels like your story is growing stagnant, don’t look to plot – look to your secondary characters.


  • What are they doing?
  • Do they all play a role?
  • If not – cut the ones that aren’t pulling their weight.
  • Is there a way to combine two of them? If so, do it.
  • Can you give them more conflict?
  • Is there a place where one of them might work against the protagonist? Maybe they’re corrupted by the antagonist, or threatened by them, or simply have different beliefs? Highlight that.
  • Is there a place where they can provide aid or information the protagonist needs?
  • And although they won’t have a story arc to match that of your MC – your secondary characters, particularly the most important ones, probably will change over the course of the novel. Make sure we see that. Make sure it’s believable and necessary. How does that change work for or against your protagonist?
  • And . . . remember. At least some of your secondary characters are support for your MC. As you think about how to make his life more difficult, how much support can you remove, and how? Some may die. Some may change their minds, abandon the MC.
  • What about the ones that are against your MC – how can you make them stronger, more of a force that works against your MC? They have story arcs, too!
  • How do they react to your MC’s actions? Just like in real life, there’s going to be backlash for something said or done. How can this add to the tension in your novel?

I know it’s emphasized over and over again that your MC drives the novel. But the secondary characters are the foundation on which your MC’s story is built. By ensuring they’re as strong and vibrant as you can, you’ll ensure that your MC’s journey is just as compelling.

Link to Barnes & Nobel, where you can buy Donald Maass’ book:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-the-breakout-novel-donald-maass/1102359686?ean=9781582971827

Plotters Anonymous

“Hi, I’m Robyn, and I have a problem with plotting.”

(A chorus of “Hi, Robyn!” goes up around the room. Someone says, “So how long has this problem been going on?”)

It’s hard to say. I never used to think about plotting. I mean, who does when they first start out? You’re just excited about the characters and the setting, and sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and write, or you get home late from work and write to unwind, and you just don’t think about the plot, because you have to get the story out. You know? And then one day you wake up and realize you’ve Got A Problem.

“Tell us about it!”

Glad you asked. I used to be a pantser. Sometimes, I pretend I still am. I used to just let the characters dictate the story to me. I’d write for hours, letting them do whatever they wanted. The coolest part? Waking up and realizing that I didn’t remember a single thing I’d just written. It was all fresh and new, and exciting. I had no idea what I’d written, but I liked it. It was good.

And then . . . I sort of stopped doing that.

“Why? What happened?”

I don’t remember when, or why. I just remember things going differently for me. I mean, I’d get flashes of scenes and dialogue, and I’d write them down, and then I started having to work different hours, and . .  . I went to college. That was it. I’m sure that’s then the problems really started. Academic writing requires thinking and planning and thesis statements and proof and research. Outlines. Drafts. Somehow . .  . somehow, that made it into my fiction. Yes. I’m sure of it. That’s when it happened. That’s when it all changed.

And now . . . I’m stuck.

(Lots of nodding heads and knowing looks.)

Yes. I have a plot problem.

This is the typical plot diagram we all know and love –Plot-Structure-Diagram-800x618 and love to hate. Looks simple enough, doesn’t it? Fill in the blanks, and make up the rest. So why isn’t it easy for me? Why can’t I use this darn thing? I see it, I want to use it – but you might as well be asking me to do a complex equation in theoretical physics. In fact, that might be easier.

(A few laughs. Someone in the back starts to hum “Soft Kitty.”)

It’s not funny! Not really. I mean, I know my characters so well, and . . . but do I? Do I really? (I look around the room, into eyes that are beginning to question my sanity.) You know, I’m not sure I do. Not all of them.

Not my antagonist.

Your protagonist can only be as great as your antagonist makes him. Isn’t that right? So what is my antagonist doing to my protagonist? While she’s working on subplots and research and all that, what is my antagonist doing behind the scenes? Holy cow. Is that it? Can it be that simple? Can it be as simple as what is my antagonist doing to get what it wants?

It’s the same question my MC always asks, too. What does this thing want? It’s an answer she does get in the end, but . . . what is the antagonist doing to get what it wants during the rest of the novel? Not a damn thing! Not really.

And that’s one of the problems with plotting, and one that I think a lot of books and articles on plotting don’t really talk about:  your antagonist drives the plot just as much as your MC and your secondary characters. It has to, doesn’t it? Your MC wants something. So does your antagonist. What they want is often either the same thing, or things that are at cross-purposes with each other. Think about Indiana Jones and Rene Belloq. They want the same thing:  the Ark of the Covenant. But they want it for totally different reasons. Or think about Harry Potter and Professor Quirrell. Quirrell wants the Sorcerer’s Stone; Harry wants to keep him from having it. (Though it’s funny that in both cases, what’s driving the antagonist is loyalty to a background character – for Belloq, the Nazis; for Quirrell, Voldemort.) Take Katniss and President Snow, then. Snow needs Katniss to do just one thing:  either win or lose the Hunger Games. But Katniss isn’t going to let him have what he needs, is she? Nope.

Your antagonist does need a good reason for doing what he’s doing, and wanting what he wants. Your antagonist needs to be believable, after all. Is it a crossroads demon that needs to collect souls? We get that. Is it a vampire that needs to drink blood and keep its secret from the world? We get it. Is your antagonist a power-hungry politician? We’ll be rooting for him to die at the end. 🙂 Either way, both of them have to drive the plot.

Your MC is only as great as your antagonist makes him. Your plot, therefore, can only be as great as they both make it.

I’ve got some work to do. 🙂

The diagram can be found at www.stanthonygardena.org.

The secondary characters of Karen Marie Moning’s world

In all my spare time this week (which has mostly been the 5 minutes or so before I go to bed), I’ve been continuing to think about secondary characters, what makes them tick, and why they’re so vital to novels.

Since I’m reading Karen Marie Moning’s newest, Burned, this week as well, I thought I’d look at her remarkable secondary characters and how they fit into the arc of her series.

We’re first introduced to Mac – MacKayla Lane – and Jericho Barrons in the first novel, Darkfever. Mac is in Dublin to find out who killed her sister Alina, and avenge her death if she can. That’s it. Then she’s going back home to her rainbow life in Georgia. Barrons, on the other hand, is the suave, urbane, predatory owner of the bookstore Mac happens to end up in on her first night in Dublin. What’s his end game? We aren’t sure. But we’re pretty sure it involves Mac.

Then, we meet V’lane, a Seelie prince with almost limitless power and a vested interest in Mac, for two reason:  one, he needs to keep her alive and on his side in his search for a powerful magical object; and two, he really likes to needle Barrons.

Dani O’Malley, we met last week. A 14-year old spitfire, she – like Mac – can see the Fae. She and Mac become like sisters. Dani, however, lives with a conclave of sidhe-seers, who seek to control her via many, many rules — and other methods. This tends to backfire quite badly where Dani is concerned.

Rowena is the Grand Mistress of the sidhe-seers. She hates challenges to her authority. She craves more power than she already has. She sees herself as the seers’ only chance of survival. And she particularly hates Mac, because Mac is a major threat to her control.

Then there’s Christian MacKeltar, a college student and Druid, whose powers are going to get him into MAJOR trouble a few books down the road.

And of course, I can’t forget Barrons’ buddies — eight ruthless, gorgeous, powerful . . . well . . . men, for lack of a better word. 🙂 His right-hand man is Ryodan, whose job it is, we learn later, to watch over Mac when Barrons isn’t around. It’s an odd thing for him to have to do, considering he doesn’t like Mac and vice-versa. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’d like nothing more than to eat her for breakfast. And not in a good way. He’s smart, a businessman who ends up running the hottest club in Dublin after the walls come down between humanity and Fae, and almost completely without humanity himself. One of Moning’s brilliant maneuvers is to make him more human, through his actions.

There are literally dozens more characters who influence and shape the plots of these novels. But what Moning does best is give each character a background, a reason for being who they are. And then she lets them run free across her pages, creating and destroying their own worlds.

For example:  much of Dani’s early life is influenced by her hyperspeed. Her mother hides her away, unable to control her; when her mother dies, Dani is actually left to starve in a metal cage. It’s Rowena who finds her and brings her to the abbey, where the other seers try to care for her. Dani is caught between two oppositional desires:  on one hand, she desperately wants a family, to belong and to be accepted; on the other, she finds it difficult to trust anyone and prefers to live life on her terms, regardless of what anyone else thinks of her. Survival above all is her motto. No matter what.

V’lane is the ultimate bad boy. You know you shouldn’t trust him. You KNOW he only wants Mac for his own ends. But he’s so darn good at convincing us otherwise! Not only is he bad to the bone, but he’s a con artist to boot. What woman can resist? So because of this – and because he saves Mac on at least two occasions – we trust him despite the great big yellow caution flags at every corner. One of the things she does to great effect here, though, is to capitalize on his otherness. If he makes a misstep, we can put it down to his not being human. She doesn’t make the mistake of letting him be too like the humans. She reminds us every step of the way that he is Fae, and not just Fae, but one of the more powerful ones.

in Moning’s world, secondary characters help and hinder. They clash and collide. They step up to become something more than secondary characters, in fact. Not quite main characters — we always know, and never forget, that this is Mac’s story. But they live in her world. They’re just as affected by the walls collapsing as she is. How they react to it is due to their own backgrounds, their own personalities. Dani fights. Ryodan loots banks and creates his own sphere of influence. Mac tries to find a way to put the walls back up. Rowena sees a chance to regain the power and control Mac has cracked. Their choices, and their decisions, influence Mac. Ryodan wants a favor? Hmm. Let’s see how far we can push him, what ‘I owe you’ we can extort from him, first. Dani needs a big sister? Mac’s hesitant at first, but she realizes that Dani could help fill the void that Alina’s death left in her soul. Barrons wants the object of immense power – but is that really the extent of his interest in Mac? She isn’t sure, and isn’t sure she wants to find out, either. Not at first.

Over the course of these (so far) seven books, each of these characters has grown, changed, adapted. Some have died. Some have shown their true colors. Some have sacrificed themselves so that the others can live. Moning isn’t afraid to let her secondary characters shine through and take control. In fact, the world she’s created demands it.

Those Pesky Secondary Characters

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: