May 14 2021
by Dana Wayne

medium_cover art 2 (1).pngHere's the script from today's Podcast on secondary characters. You can listen to it on this link. A Writers Life Podcast The podcast includes an excerpt from my current work in progress so you'll have to listen to hear it since I did not paste it here. Hello, and welcome to today’s show. I’m your host, Dana Wayne.

Today we’re going to chat a little bit about secondary characters – who are they and why do you need them. As writers we spend a great deal of time and effort developing our main characters, which is as it should be. But don’t forget those secondary characters, the shining jewels that hide in the background but give your story more depth, meaning and color.

Regardless of how isolated your main character is, at some point, they will have to have contact with someone, even if only through back story, in order to move your plot forward. Otherwise, its just unrealistic.

You want to keep the number of secondary characters to a minimum – just like anything else, too much is too much. Focus on quality not quantity. And their purpose is to develop/affect/bother the main characters.

I found four types of secondary characters. And no, you don’t need all of them in your story – just the ones that fit.  

First of all, there are the dynamic ones who change over the course of the story. Just like the protagonist changes, this character does, too. If he is too dynamic, it causes complications with your plot.

The static ones have a substantial role in your plot and remain solid and steadfast to the end. These are typically the ones readers relate to and remember. Miss Eva, the innkeeper in Whispers On The Wind and Big John from Chasing Hope are statis characters.

Round characters are typically conflicted characters and challenge the protagonist and, in the end, help to reveal their true character.  

Lastly, you have the flat characters. Just what the name implies, they are flat. They have one trait that remains the same, and never changes. Like in the story Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s mother is a flat character. Her role is to persuade Juliet to marry someone else. That’s it. She has no other purpose.

Secondary characters are just that; someone who plays a significant role in your story, but the plot doesn’t usually involve them, although they can be involved in one of the subplots. Or, in some cases, they can end up being dragged into the main plot by your protagonist. You know that friend who always says, ‘come on it’ll be fun’…and you end up in trouble.

They are essentially supporting characters, someone with whom the main character has a relationship, but again isn’t directly involved in the plot. Their role is to well, support the MC as they work their way through whatever mess you’ve put them in.

Think about your own circle of family and friends. Think about the things you all have gone through in your life, things you have experienced, people you’ve associated with. Maybe you have a mom who drives you crazy, a best friend who’s a little wacky but you are lost without or the nemesis who always makes your skin prickle. Those are the secondary characters in your life who make it interesting and maybe even a little scary, and the kinds of people you need in your story.

But why do they even matter? First of all, they offer your protagonist someone to talk to, a sounding board, the voice of reason or dissent as the case may be and they help bring your story to life.  And they can provide some comic relief in a tension-filled scene or, on the other hand, increase the tension.

They can take many forms such as a mentor helping your MC with much-needed information or inspiration. Or maybe a best friend, relative, love interest, even a pet. One of my favorite secondary characters to write was Jack, the mixed breed rescue dog who belonged to my female lead in Whispers on The Wind. She needed some kind of sidekick, a best friend to talk to and I came up with Jack. He turned out so well, several readers said I needed to write a book from his point of view. That’s the thing about a well-developed secondary character…they can take on a life of their own and voila – you have a lead for another book down the road.

Subplots often revolve around or include secondary characters in some manner and you can use them to in effect mirror the main plot. Let’s say you’re writing a really tense who-done-it. Your MC and SC have a disagreement over how to proceed and part ways. The SC later returns with the missing piece needed move things forward. That particular subplot develops their relationship and builds on the suspense.

When developing your secondary characters, things like what they look like, how they dress and so on are not nearly as important as their role in the story. How well they work for or against the protagonist. Once you have their role defined, you can work on fleshing them, developing the personality traits that work for – or against – your main character.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t use their appearance to show the reader more about them. Remember the episode on indirect and direct characterization? You can use those techniques to describe them. A character who only wears the latest fashions could be vain and self-centered, while someone who wears ragged jeans and tee shirts may be someone who doesn’t know or doesn’t care, how they dress.

Finer details are more interesting when they add to your secondary character’s story or state of mind. Don’t add then just to be adding them. Besides, in the end, your reader isn’t likely to remember all that anyway. Their focus will be on the relationship to the main character and, in turn, with them.

I absolutely love strong secondary characters. They are essential to moving your story along. They can enhance your main character, move the plot forward and/or provide comic relief.

They are, in essence, tied to the main character’s arc and may or may not have some kind of subplot tied to them. And those subplots can be anything from romance to revenge to everything in between. But remember, subplots should enhance, not detract from the main plot.

Secondary characters need four things: Backstory, autonomy, identity and name.

They need a backstory – how did they get here? What is their relationship to the MC? What is their purpose in the story?

They need autonomy, independence. It’s crucial they are able to stand on their own two feet. They role to help the main character, regardless of whether or not they are good or bad themselves.

They must have their own identity, whether they appear frequently in the story or not. Keep the framework simple so the reader keeps up with the plot. It’s acceptable to go deeper into their individual personalities, their hopes and dreams as it were. This makes it easier for the reader to relate to them.

Finally, they need a distinct name, not one that isn’t similar to someone else. This relates back to their own identity. They may be a secondary character, but the are important to the story and need to stand on their own. A distinct name is part of that.

Secondary characters are complete people. They have a past, present and future. They are individuals with a purpose. Make sure that purpose comes through on the page just like in real life.