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Building Believable Secondary Characters

Supporting characters in a novel serves the same purpose as a supporting actor/actress in a movie, and if your secondary characters serve their purpose in a meaningful way, then the reader will award them their attention and focus. And yes, some deserve an actual award, even in fiction.

So you must ask yourself? Am I giving enough attention to my secondary characters or are they flimsy and unsubstantial?

If you are taking the time to flesh out your protagonist, shaping them, breathing life into them, pumping them full of emotion, motivation, and goals, then you are going to need to do the same for your secondary characters in relation to your protagonist. In other words, they need to live on the page and not take over the protagonist's role, otherwise you are in jeopardy of losing the intended audience.

For example... and while this was on stage, it still relates to how we write secondary characters. A while ago I attended a Shakespearean play, the infamous Romeo & Juliet, and by the middle of the play, my emotions ran rampant against the character of Mercutio. Why? Well, for the simple reason that in Shakespeare's play, Mercutio has a secondary role to play... somewhat prophetical, somewhat comic relief, and also part of the impetus which veers Romeo, the protagonist, into an unexpected tangent. In this live version, however, for whatever reason than the director's obsession with this character, or perhaps the actor's obsession, the play began to feel like it was Mercutio's stage and more weight appeared to be given to his outlandish wild talk and humor rather than the tragedy unfolding with the two naive main characters. Even at the end of the play, when accolades are given and standing ovations, the actor who played Mercutio actually received louder applause and shouts from the crowd than Romeo and Juliet... and not because their acting wasn't good (it was!) but because this secondary character overshadowed the performance.

Ask yourself, is any of my secondary characters doing this? And if so, this may go back to the former article in this series about Is the Right Character Telling the Story? If the answer is yes, then that is not a bad thing, it just may mean that you need to adjust your story and have the right character speak as the main character. Don't get me wrong, this happens all the time when a character takes a life of their own and the author gets more enmeshed in their story than in the main character. Listen to your gut on this; sometimes the secondary characters have a much more compelling way to tell the story you are trying to tell. We all know the tale of Anne Boleyn, and many a novel has been written about her from her point of view, yet what about her maids, or cook, or even her lovers? This seems to be a trend in historical fiction at the moment with every other title in the format of “The Whale Killer's Daughter” or “The Librarian's Assistant” (fake titles, but good ones!).

While secondary characters often steal the show, sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes they are mere wisps that enter and leave without any fleshing out whatsoever. This is not the time to skimp, especially if you want your reader fully engaged in the storyline.

In one of my favorite historical novels, “The Shadow of the Wind”, some of the secondary characters are as fleshed out and vital to the story as Daniel, the main character, and Julian in the antagonist role. The character of the librarian who runs 'The Cemetery of Forgotten Books' or Fermin, the murdered Catalan leader who serves a political role in the book, and Clara, Daniel's love interest who is also blind (yet sees more than people think) – all, and more, serve a fascinating role in the story and as secondary characters have a life outside of the protagonist's life, and yet they all meld together in a resplendent way.

So, how does an author do this?

Just like before, your secondary characters must serve a purpose. Don't insert them just for filler otherwise their long-reaching shadow will darken your story. Here are some ways your secondary characters can add to the story instead of sucking it dry of any worth. Ask yourself:

  1. How can my secondary characters advance the plot in a way my protagonist cannot?

  2. Can they create conflict for the main character apart from the antagonist?

  3. Can their backstory, their dialogue or actions, deepen the narrative, the theme, or the main character's goals?

  4. What can they reveal about the main character's personality or life?

  5. How can I use secondary characters in building this world? (Which leads us back to “The Lord of the Rings” - while Frodo is the main character, every single secondary character has a whole history and world behind him which adds to Frodo's journey and the ultimate goal of destroying the ring)

Secondary characters are so much more than fillers or tools and have a unique way of enlivening the story and captivating readers. You can do this by using the same techniques you used to flesh out your protagonist and antagonist, and again, this may be a lot of work, but your book will be better for it. Get back out that notebook on characters and start a page (or pages) for each of the secondary characters. (If you are a pantser, this will be very difficult... but even as a pantser you don't want to run the risk of one of your secondary characters running away with the show. Don't be that kind of director!) You may not use every single thing about your secondary characters but at least you know enough about them now to meld them into the story.

  1. Develop their backstory, personality, voice, features, worldview, and how this relates to the story and to the main character.

  2. Put a twist into the stereotypes, something unexpected instead of just using a character as a trope. And when you do this, make sure that the purpose for you doing this is clear and relates to the storyline in a believable way. Each of these small details has the ability to immerse your reader who will fully engage with not only your main character's story but with each character in the book.

  3. Giving them particular quirks or features helps them to stand out in the story rather than fading into the background. What would we do without Pippin and Merry's curiosity or love of 'second breakfast'? And yet, each is unique in their own way, with distinctive names and traits which help us remember them even as secondary characters.

While some secondary characters serve a specific role and may appear more often than others, each needs to serve a purpose in bringing your story to life. More about crafting incredible characters is coming soon, so stay tuned!

Next article: How to Build Your Character's Personality (Link will be live on Sept 30, 2022)


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Dee Marley


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