Creating Great Secondary Characters

Almost every novel has a range of supporting characters to help bring the story to life and who revolve around the main character.

These secondary characters aren’t just there to make up the numbers. They’re necessary if you want to tell a complete story. Writers use them to create different viewpoints, reveal important details and involve them within subplots, they support the protagonist and they help the story arc to evolve. They also help the story move forward.

The main character needs them, whether they are friends, family, strangers or enemies. They are there to help, motivate, challenge or even create conflict with your protagonist. Ultimately, they all have the same purpose - to help get the story from the beginning to the end. They bring added dimension and depth to your story.

So who are secondary characters?

Secondary characters usually have some dialogue and interaction with the main character. They may have their own scenes, or be part of a subplot. Characters that speak one line, have a walk on part or appear in the background in scenes are peripheral characters.

Great secondary characters are multidimensional. Just because they don’t share as much starlight as the main character, they still need to feel like real people to your reader. Make sure they, too, have backstories. Give them a history; give them motivations, personality traits and behaviours. Make them relatable. The reader needs to connect with them just like they have to connect with the protagonist, so they need to feel these people are just as real as your hero and villain.

The type of story you create will dictate the type of supporting characters you make. And their actions are often what make them memorable. Of course, there will one or two supporting characters that will appear with your protagonist more than others. These are the important secondary characters that will help carry the story.

They need to be individual and have a different perspective of the world that your main character inhabits. When you put together the plot and you plan your chapters, make sure your secondary characters know what role they need to play in important scenes and chapters, because like everything else in a novel, they have to have a reason to be there and a reason behind what they do.

Even before you start writing, know your important supporting characters inside out. Give them unique characteristics; something that helps them stand out, something that makes them markedly different from everyone else. That way, the reader will remember them.

Give them flaws, just as you would the protagonist. That way, the reader will grow to understand their actions and behaviours. They won’t be perfect, so don’t make them that way. We need to see their mistakes.

How will their actions or behaviour affect situations or events? Make sure they evolve with the story. No character stays the same because the story is always moving forward; things happen, things change, and people change because of what happens. In other words, they, too, have their own character arcs that develop and grow as the story unfolds. This creates an imprint for your reader.

What kind of people are they?

Will they be friends to the main character, or family members, or maybe a lover or spouse? Are they people who could provide comfort and safety, or influence? Are they the kind of people that will generate different, intense story threads and complexity?

Can they be trusted? Will they be an enemy? Will they create conflict or be reckless and dangerous? These people always have their own hidden agendas and like to complicate things.

Whoever they are, give them depth of character and give them a reason to be in the story.

Of course, there are some things to avoid when it comes to writing secondary characters, things that will cause all manner of problems if they go unchecked:

Don’t create too many supporting characters. It can prove confusing to the reader who won’t be able to keep track of them all. And it will be impossible for you as a writer to establish any connection to the reader with so many characters to concentrate on.

Don’t let any secondary character overshadow your main character or become more compelling that they become more important. The key to getting this right is to remember that your main character should be in 90% of the story (if told from 3rd person). If one character appears more often than your hero, then you have a problem, and you need to start cutting.

Don’t create stereotypical secondary characters. Make them unique and different. Also, don’t create characters just to make up numbers. If they don’t serve the story, get rid of them.

Remember, they are there to support the main character, move the story forward, reveal information and to help get the story from beginning to end.

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