It may be the salty aired beach or a long-ago molten path on a dormant volcano that brings us into the story, and the main characters who introduce themselves and take the reader by the hand for the journey. However, without secondary characters, the story wouldn’t get far. Main characters can’t be everywhere at once, even though they are the main focus in stories. There’s no way for them to gain every tidbit of knowledge they need without the help of their comrades. That’s why writers should never forget the importance of creating and casting unforgettable secondary characters.
Secondary characters provide readers information about the main characters they otherwise wouldn’t receive. An example from my own work being that Lucky, the male main character, falls into a coma. Meanwhile his childhood friend Casey tells the female main character stories of their youth, one of which shines light on one of Lucky’s traits which ties back into who he is at that point in the story.
How far would Frodo have gotten if it weren’t for Sam? Honestly, not far. Sam literally carried Frodo up a mountain. In Robert Jordan’s, Wheel of Time series, Rand could not have accomplished everything he did without the help of secondary characters such as Min or Gawyn. Harry Potter wouldn’t have gotten far without Hermione or even Neville.
Writing advice often states, “make your main characters real and well-rounded,” but secondary characters are equally as important to a good story. They need to be just as realistic, even if you aren’t writing from their point of view. You need to know who they are as individuals, and who they are in relation to the protagonist. Most importantly, you need to know their purpose and role in your story.
To create realistic secondary characters, follow these simple guidelines:
Give them a backstory. It might seem like overkill but your readers and your story will thank you. Make all your characters relatable and real by giving them quirks and traits, just as you would with a protagonist. You should have one for all of your characters. Yes, 95% of the information probably won’t be utilized, but knowing it while you write will show in the writing. By doing this, each character in the story will be unique.
Don’t Make Them Absolute
We don’t want characters that are deemed evil or good from the get-go. We want a mixture of the two, plus some gray. We also want to judge for ourselves whether they’re good or bad. Create a list of three virtues for every secondary character in your book. It doesn’t have to be super detailed, just keep it simple. You don’t have to put them in the story either, as long as you know them it helps add depth to your character.
You’ll also want a small, pertinent list of negatives traits for each of them. It can be physical appearance, hygiene, or inner negatives (such as prejudices or fears). Keep in mind, depending on the story’s point of view, the readers won’t always know the inner negatives or virtues. However, knowing these as the writer will help you create realistic dialogue and interactions between the characters, as you will know your characters inside and out.
Creating side characters can be really enjoyable, but if you overwhelm yourself with them you will hit a wall. I ran into this issue with the first draft of my novel. I had probably twenty side characters and I wanted ALL of their stories told. I could make it flow and I told the story well enough, but it was overwhelming. I scrapped that draft and started over, and I struggled less with the story when I was able to focus on just a few primary characters rather than all twenty that I had originally created.
Whittle your character list down as much as you can. Who does your protagonist need to interact with in order to complete the story? Why? If you take a look at all of your characters, can you combine any of them? Ask yourself if you really need a bartender and a diner owner that offer the main character advice.
There are some exceptions to this. Robert Jordan, for example, does an amazing job with his cast of characters in, Wheel of Time. Every single one is unique and interesting and easy to keep separated from the rest. They all add in pertinent information and story to the plot. Everything in those books is interconnected and webbed together, so even though there are a multitude of characters they all build the story.
Role of Secondary Characters
There are several possible roles for secondary characters.
First, they can be The Companion. John Watson, Ron Weasley, and Simon Lewis from City of Bones are examples.
Second, they can be The Foil. This character’s purpose is to contrast the qualities of another character, such as good vs. bad, weak vs. courageous, corrupt vs. honorable, etc. Draco Malfoy vs. Harry Potter is an example.
Third, they can be The Roadblock. This secondary character isn’t an antagonist, but they do create obstacles for the protagonist. An example would be Umbridge in Harry Potter. Padan Fain is a recurring roadblock in Wheel of Time.
Lastly, and probably most importantly as all stories require them, there’s The Antagonist. This secondary character is in direct opposition to the main character. The antagonist’s purpose is to bring about change and growth in the main character, though they don’t realize this in the story. For example, Voldemort is the overall antagonist in Harry Potter, and Shai’tan is the antagonist in Wheel of Time.
Reason for Existing
This is one of the most important aspects of secondary characters. You don’t want characters to just be there to tag along. They need to have a purpose in the story as well. Some of the time they are just thrown in and have to stay with the protagonist in order to survive, but in that case you need to ask why they need to survive. Do they save the main character’s life at some point down the line? Do they bring knowledge or a tool that the main character doesn’t have?
Secondary characters help set the tone in your world. Each character you write provides you with an opportunity to delve further in, because they each have a unique perspective on the world. An example from my own work shows this. One of the women has seen very little of the outbreak at the beginning of the book, so she vastly downplays the danger. Whereas, another of the secondary characters has had personal experiences with the infected and knows how easily everything can turn negative.
Minor characters in our stories are so important. They provide information and viewpoints we wouldn’t get with the main character alone. They require almost as much work as it takes to create a protagonist. There are a number of different types, which help move your story-line along as well as aide in painting a picture of the world. Always remember, each character should have a background and a function in the story. Incorporating these essential elements into your minor characters will guarantee that all your characters and your story will come to life.
Go forth and conquer!
About the Author: Jensen Reed is a writer by night as she clings to the final bits of caffeine in her system after a day of wrangling her two young sons. An all-around nerd, she dabbles in numerous writing and reading genres. Her current WIP is an apocalyptic trilogy where she subjects her characters to the perils of a zombie outbreak. She edits and beta reads for friends when needed and loves to inspire others with quotes, messages, and ideas.
For short stories, memes, and writing tips you can find her here: Author Jensen Reed