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Content corner: What about secondary characters?

When planning a novel, it’s easy to become a bit obsessed with your protagonist. They’re the ones leading your plot after all, so it’s important that you get to know everything about them and understand how their wants and needs change through the novel.  

...But what about those secondary characters? Although they’re in the background, they’re vital for jogging the pace along or perhaps offering help to, or hindering the success of, your protagonist.  

Some authors like to ask all their characters the same questions they’re asking their protagonist, and you can tell when that happens (think of the Harry Potter series for example – it seems every character in those books has a complex backstory). But I’m lazy. I don’t really care what the shopkeeper on page fifty of my book ate for breakfast. So how to I make him appear real?  

My trick is to give him a memorable trait. Something removed from cliché that sets him apart from everyone else. It could be anything from the way he looks to the way he engages with the protagonist. It could be an unusual tattoo, or a tic. Whatever it is – keep it relevant to your character’s situation. 

So – how do you create secondary characters? What are your favourite characters from the background of other books? What do you think makes a character memorable? Share them below.

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Replies (5)
  • I don't wish to be a "Moaning Myrtle" 😁 but sometimes the secondary characters steal the scene and sometimes a majority of the book. 

    I have several strong secondary characters in my latest story, such that on a couple of professional edits the editors said that my main character was weaker that one of my secondary characters. And I had to agree, but it was just in this book. The main series of books, or the planned series, the main character does lead.

    I have found in many of the books I have enjoyed the most they have many strong characters, some stronger than the main, though that does not detract, contrarily enhances the whole.

    I am deep into Terry Pratchett currently and his characters, all, resonate with a personality such that you are pleased when they appear in the next story.

    At the moment, I let my characters develop themselves as the story evolves, some have a very short lifespan, literally. But I don't know this until it happens. I like to be just a surprised as the reader. I may find this to be flaw later in the story and have to do some serious editing but as I am still a novice at story writing I have room to evolve my characters as my writing evolves.

    Cheers,

    Mike

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    • The main character or characters may be the stars of the show, but the secondary characters are just as important. After all, the main does not exist in a vacuum. In my story I have created some diverse and sympathetic background  characters who are an integral part of the plot. I am quite fond of them and I feel they all get a chance to shine when they appear. Without them my story would not exist. I hope one day readers will like them as much as I do!

      Annette 

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      • A major example of a secondary character stealing the show occurs in Love in the Time of Cholera. Here, a secondary character for the major part of the book turns out to be the main lead. Odd, but of course very successful in that case.

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        • I'm struggling with this - my secondary characters move the story along but they don't really have their own arcs...do they really need to? I think they are fairly realistic and what not, and my opinion at the moment is that the story isn't about them, so do they need their own subplot...?

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          • I think it is important that secondary characters do have a subplot.  It doesn't need to be particularly dazzling or exciting - that would only serve to detract from the main plot, but they do deserve a life of their own.  Of my good guys; one has a failing marriage, another is in love with him and another is looking for love but just keeps messing it up.  One of my baddies has quite a lot going on in his life, two others do not, but they are still fully formed characters with their own back-story.  Their stories interweave and interact with the main plot but, if I have written it well, do not detract from the main plot.  That's the aim - time will tell if I get it right.🙂 

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