Last week, we learned about character motivation and the importance of your main character having an “I Want” song. Two weeks ago, we learned all about agency–how to make sure your main character has an active role in their own story. Now that you’ve crafted motivated main characters, ready to take charge of their story… it’s time to talk about everyone else! Today is all about “everyone else” — also known as, secondary characters!
Finnick Odair in Catching Fire. Leah Burke in Simon Vs. Kenya in The Hate U Give. Wylan Van Eck in Six of Crows. Iris in Foolish Hearts. Chris in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. What do all of these characters have in common? They’re all phenomenal secondary characters. While they are not the stars of the stories they are in, they are fully rendered and complex, and it is easy to imagine these characters at the center of their own stories. (And some even get those stories! Wylan becomes a POV character in Crooked Kingdom & Leah Burke is the star of Leah on the Offbeat). Secondary characters can be as nuanced and fleshed out as main characters, and today we’re going to talk about how to do that!
Secondary characters are just as crucial to your story as your main characters, because they are the characters who make the world of your story come to life. There are two types of secondary characters–supporting characters and minor characters. While your main character might briefly interact with a minor character, supporting characters are essential to the plot. Supporting characters are the people that your main character interacts with daily, the ones whose relationship to the main character have the ability to affect the plot. For example, in The Hunger Games, Haymitch is a supporting character, someone who influences Katniss as a mentor. Madge, Katniss’s friend and the daughter of the mayor of District 12, is a minor character who, while part of Katniss’s world in District 12, has no effect on the story once Katniss enters the Hunger Games.
Secondary characters are responsible for progressing the story in some way. They might offer support and encouragement to your main character. They might challenge them, or get them into trouble, or teach them a lesson. The takeaway here is that secondary characters exist to influence plot, by influencing your main character.
However, this does not mean that secondary characters should be treated as plot devices! Do not treat any character as a plot device! Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than lackluster, one-dimension secondary characters. Sometimes, these characters feel flat because they rely on stereotypes–but most of the time, they’re flat because they read as plot devices, as though they only exist to affect the main character’s life. When a secondary character is poorly rendered, it is difficult to imagine who they are as an individual, who they are outside of the central story.
So. How do you create fleshed out, complex, secondary characters?
Pre-writing and character sketches! When I’m crafting secondary characters, I character sketch as much as I would for a POV character. I write up short bios for each character, I answer the 7 questions on motivation, and I even face cast my secondary characters to help further bring them to life in my head. In pre-writing, I separate my secondary characters from the plot of the story and fully flesh them out. That way, when I insert them back into the central story–they feel real. Like they exist within the story, not because of it.
For every secondary character, these three questions drive their character sketches:
- How does x character relate to the main character?
- What does x character want outside of the central goal / arc of the main character?
- What is going on in x character’s life outside of the main character’s story?
Answer these questions for every secondary character, both supporting and minor. No role is too small! For questions two and three, you’ll see that the point is to take the main character out of consideration. For this exercise to be effective, the point is to treat each character like they are a main character. This will deepen your understanding of your characters, who they are, what they want, and how those goals align with or oppose the central arc. Though this is all pre-writing and a lot of the details will not make it into the draft, it will help define your secondary characters and create more meaningful interactions between them and your main characters.
Secondary characters are the foundation on which your central story arc rests. If each secondary character is treated as a main character, if only for a moment, your entire story will be strengthened.
Marisa Kanter is the author of the YA novel TO BE (MIS)READ, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster BFYR in 2020. You can follow her on twitter at @marisakanter or on her website, www.marisakanter.com.