Monday, July 13, 2009

Secondary Characters

Every hero needs a side kick and friends. This week, let’s talk about secondary characters. What do your secondary characters need? How important are they to the story? How do you keep them from taking over? Do you like them more than the main character?

I have several secondary characters in my WIP that are important to the story line. I am the parent of a daughter who has autism and seizures. Because I deal with special needs on a daily basis, I’ve found that I always include a character with some kind of handicap. My other daughter reads my chapters and she’s grown to love the faun, who is friends with the heroine. The faun (his name is Anon) has Down’s – but, of course, I don’t call it that. Anon is “touched.” He adds a different dynamic to the story, even though he is quite secondary. And if not for him, the heroine would not be able to complete her task, although we don’t know that until almost the end.

Let’s talk about secondary characters.


  1. Secondary characters are valuable because they can be killed off without the same emotional impact as a main character.

    Heh heh heh.

  2. And... they act as a foil for the protagonists, highlighting their key character traits; move the plot along; provide comic relief or gravity at the right moments; create opportunities for expository conversations; and, occasionally, get killed. Sometimes.

    I really don't have a problem creating secondary characters. They just sort of populate the story by themselves... siblings, co-workers, authority figures, etc. I'm kind of amazed at all the people who have cropped up in this story. One of them did become a main character, and the story now alternates between both of their POV's. This is because there is a large portion of the action which the heroine doesn't personally witness, so I realized that I needed the main male character to be a POV character as well.

  3. Twice now I've tried to post and I think it works and then when I come back my comments aren't here. has anyone else been having problems

  4. I'm sorry you're having problems posting, Doug. I enjoy your input! I'll look into it and see if I can find anything out.

    Christine's experience with a secondary character becoming a main one is common. The only way to keep that from happening - unless you want it to - is to keep a tight rein on everyone. :)

    Even so, we can't control who our readers will enjoy more. And without secondary characters, there's no real life to our story. I know there are exceptions, like The Old Man and the Sea, but it depends on your intended audience. My 16-year-old HATED the Hemingway classic. She longs for action and adventure and she enjoys getting to know characters. I think MOST teens do.

    And since we're talking about fantasy writing, how about this: is it necessary for secondary characters to have magic or be a mythical-type creature?

  5. To your last question I would say no. In fact if they do I'm sure it is more likely that you will have a hard time keeping them as secondary characters. In my WIP, I had a secondary character that is a cleric, wheedling power directly from God. During the course of the first quarter of the book, it became apparent that I had two main characters. So I gave in and promoted him.
    One of my other secondary characters threatened to become a main character when my heroine started having romantic feelings for him. I hope people will care about him, but I've made an effort to keep him secondary.

    I did this by doing the following. I haven't given him any real problems to deal with other that keeping the heroine safe. While this is a big job, it keeps the focus on the heroine. Second, I didn't create any scenes with just him in it - I've made sure to always have one of the main characters in the scene too.

    I have another secondary character who is the house boy for the old wizard. I put the same limitations on him and, except for one scene, I haven't written in his voice. In that one scene he is left on his own, but the focus is on the wizard.

  6. I don't think that *every* secondary character has to be magical in some way, but I can't think of a single fantasy story that doesn't have at least one secondary character that is magical or a mythical being. It's part of the world-building process, I think. And often the main character is not magical, but has to deal with a magical situation, in which case the magic element can only come from secondary characters... like the Spiderwick Chronicles, for example.

  7. Regarding keeping characters "in their place," I believe that if you just focus on telling the story, everyone will fall into the right place. I don't think of my characters as being "primary" or "secondary." I just think of them as POV or not POV characters.

    To me the characters are just who they are. One of them betrays the hero, another falls in love with the heroine, another wants to take over the kingdom, and another is the guy trying to hang on to his power.

    Actually, what keeps this novel interesting for me (2.5 years from its inception) is that it's really about secondary characters. The hero and heroine are actually sidekicks to the really important people around whom the plot is focused, and part of their journey is one of self-discovery in the course of their service to their friends and to their kingdom.

  8. What an interesting concept, Christine. The secondary characters are really the heroes. I like it. I can see that in many cases, like TLOTR. Samwise is the real hero, because without him, Frodo would never have made it to Mt. Doom.

    I had a fun experience with a secondary character just showing up. My antagonist was riding through the woods and heard a familiar whistle. I typed that, sat back and said to myself, who whistled? HA!! And Brimridge showed up and introduced himself. He's quite an interesting character, even though he doesn't have a big part at all.

  9. Danielle

    So much fun! They are helpful to keep the main character going, helpful in helping them out, and helpful in giving laughs.

    I love Brimridge, too. :)