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“I’m Important!” she yelled.

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Secondary characters are characters who are not considered crucial for the main plot line but contribute to the plot or subplots within a story. How many novels have you read that only have a hero and heroine? Unless the two are on a deserted island, there are usually a few more inhabitants wandering around, providing your main characters with people to strategize with, vent to, or reveal past baggage and motivation to. It is often more interesting for the heroine to talk with a friend and deal with their reactions than for her to just think something while staring in a mirror.

Our stories need secondary characters, or at least that’s what they think. Remember – to a secondary character, the story is all about them, not the hero and heroine. They want to be interesting or funny or evil or special. They must possess quirks and hobbies and dislikes to become real.

Right now I’m incorporating my editor’s comments on my latest manuscript. One of my secondary characters is fading into the background too much and is in jeopardy of being cut from the story. Ahh! He can’t be cut! He’s the hero of the third book so he needs to be introduced in this book and he needs to be much more interesting. I have to dig into his background and motivations to create a three-dimensional person.

So where do we find inspiration for secondary characters? They are simply everywhere! Neighbors, family members, arch enemies from high school – fabulous secondary characters surround us. I have a neighbor who irons every single piece of clothing her family wears, even underwear. Her kids can’t run in the house at all because they could get hurt and her house is beyond spotless. What cool details. She could easily be a great secondary character with a need to control her surroundings. Hmmm…she could do all sorts of things to interfere with the primary characters while thinking that she is just helping them out.

I dated a guy in college who owned a red sports car. I thought for certain he would drive fast, but he always drove 5-10 mph under the speed limit. Made me crazy! What was his motivation? Had he been in a crash as a child? Did he just get the hot car to attract girls since he was insecure? He wasn’t interesting enough to be a hero, but he’d make a great secondary character.

By using real life characters in your books you avoid the trap of writing clichés. The bitchy cheerleader, the nerdy bookworm, and the crazy cat lady shouldn’t show up unless they aren’t at all what they seem to be.

So as you go about writing, don’t just throw in a two-dimensional neighbor next door for your heroine to vent to or a bland best friend to give your hero a ride. Give them substance, quirks, motivation. Because if you ask them, they are the ones that make the story shine. And I have to agree with them. : )

23 Responses to ““I’m Important!” she yelled.”

  1. Jeannie Lin says:

    “Our stories need secondary characters, or at least that’s what they think. Remember – to a secondary character, the story is all about them, not the hero and heroine. They want to be interesting or funny or evil or special. They must possess quirks and hobbies and dislikes to become real.”

    Secondary characters, even and especially ones that aren’t sequel bait, are really an opportunity to add color and depth to a story. Last year, I wrote a few romances with a mystery element and there, where you’re introducing so many characters and possible suspects, it became a real exercise to make each one stand out just enough, but not too much so they could be differentiated, but not cloud the storyline.

    I did find, as you mentioned, that a few details go a long way towards making those secondaries three-dimensional. You may not learn everything about them on the page, but there’s no doubt there’s a lot more beneath the surface. Great post!

  2. Great advice, Heather. I’ve been told over and over that my secondary characters are too alive. They step off the page. Like you, I draw them from life, and I have many to draw from. The stories I could tell you. LOL

    I love using them to get in the hero’s or heroine’s way. It helps to up conflict.

    • Thanks, Autumn!

      The problem I have (and you may have) is making these characters not so obviously my friends with weird quirks. I don’t want to make anyone mad. It helps that I write historical so I can change the actions but keep the characteristic. Like the guy with the hot car might have a huge war horse that he doesn’t ever let gallop : )

    • Elisa Beatty says:

      That’s so interesting, Autumn. I think sometimes we can feel more free with secondary characters because they don’t have to meet the “ideals” of heroine and hero, who can never be so quirky that they don’t seem easy to fall in love with. Secondary characters have no such limitations.

      It’s a good reminder to keep h/h as lively and vivid and full of personality as the secondaries!

      • Amanda Brice says:

        I recently read a review of one of my books where the reader said she’d actually wished the book was about Maya (one of Dani’s best friends) rather than Dani, because she liked the character more. D’oh!

        (But’s making me think maybe I need to do a spin-off sometime.)

      • I think you nailed my meaning. WINK

  3. Rita Henuber says:

    Nice post Heather. I loves my secondary characters in what I write and read. They can be used to build conflict, give the H&H a rest and add color to the story. I’ve been told I have too many secondary characters, they play too large a part in the story, I give them too much importance in the H&H lives. Shrug. I do it any way.

    • I love colorful secondary characters too as long as I don’t make them so great that they should be the hero/heroine in the eyes of the main characters. I think that I was trying to downplay the secondary character in my current WIP (the one who will be the hero of the next)so he wouldn’t take the limelight from the hero. But I downplayed him too much. Now I need to make him interesting again – but not too interesting! Arg! Writing is hard!

  4. Elisa Beatty says:

    Such smart advice, Heather!!! Thanks for this!

  5. Tamara Hogan says:

    I’ve also experienced a secondary character coming a bit TOO alive on the page, living bigger than I ever planned or anticipated. Now I’m trying to figure out a way to give this guy an HEA of his own within the structure of the series arc I’ve already plotted.

    This is a wonderful problem to have. ;-)

    • I had one character that actually saved his own life by becoming too interesting to kill off : ) He was the protagonist, but his baggage made him a very sympathetic character. So he just got maimed a bit.

      • “So he just got maimed a bit.” Lol, Heather. I love this.

        I had a villain that I grew too fond of in one of my books, and ended up not being able to kill him off at the end of the story. But he definitely was not hero material. ;)

  6. I had to laugh when you said one of your secondary characters is at risk of being cut, but you don’t want to because he’s in a future book. I’m having the same issue. I don’t want it to seem forced that my secondary character is lurking in the background, but I want to make it a teaser for the next book. Ugh. Looks like I have some re-plotting to do. LOL

    • It’s not easy, but making the secondary character intriguing enough to be a hero later on is such a great way to set up the next book. It just takes much more thought to ensure you set him up right. So I end up having to do a lot of characterization for the next book while I’m working on this one.

      Yeah – not easy.

  7. Hope Ramsay says:

    Nice post Heather.

    Because I’m writing a series of books set in a small town, my secondary characters are really important. They repeat from one book to the next, and they are, in many respects, a part of my book’s world building and setting. (I have been told that my town is like a character unto itself, but I truly believe that comment stems from the people who live in my fictitious town, not anything particularly special about the town, itself.)

    I’m working on the sixth book in the series, (and there have been several short stories, too) So the cast of characters keeps getting bigger and bigger. I recently told my editor that there were so many people living in Last Chance that it was beginning to feel like Lake Woebegone.

    And if you want to see a master writer work with characters, I recommend Garrison Kellior. He makes the people who live in Lake Woebegone so real you start to believe you could go visit that place and meet those people.

    To be honest I think I sometimes love my secondary characters more than I love my protagonists. And it’s fun being able to carry some of them from book-to-book.

    • Hope, you must have an amazing character lay out or “cheat sheet” to keep track of everyone.

      Do you try to reintroduce them in each book in case a reader doesn’t know them (picked up the book mid series)or do you just go from where you left off? I know for one or two characters, a simple explanation of who they are will do, but with a lot of characters, that could certainly take up a lot of your word count.

  8. Debbie says:

    Great discussion on secondary characters, but I have a question the MC versus secondary.

    Although I suppose the RIPPER STREET series is considered an ensemble piece, I think the characterizations are well crafted. I convinced my dh to watch RS because one of the secondary characters is played by a GOT (GAME OF THRONES) actor and another GOT guest star was making an appearance. The dh was already biased because both GOT characters are among his favorites of the series, but he didn’t like the MC whose less likeable characteristics were being exaggerated for plot conflict.

    I consider Inspector Reid to be the central character and his sidekicks, Sergeant Drake and Captain Jackson, as secondary. I thought at first it was because Reid has a romantic crisis, and from a romance p.o.v. he’s the hero, but his wife seems more secondary than his sidekicks. Is that because the focus is more on the action and their romance is the subplot?

    I think I’ve answered my own question :)

    • Hi Debbie!
      I’m not familiar with Ripper Street so it is difficult for me to chime in, though you did hit on something quite important. Plot versus character driven stories.

      On TV, the directors may be going for lots of twists and turns in the plot, to the point where we aren’t sure anymore who the MCs are. But in a romance where we need to have a happy ending between two characters, the characterization is key to a great story.
      Hmmm… very interesting! Thanks so much : ) Heather

  9. So true, Heather. Real people are a great source of inspiration. Thanks for a great post.

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