Secondary Characters: Their Purpose for Being

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Are you using your story’s secondary characters to their full purpose? They can make your book stand out from the crowd of other books in your genre. Practically as many ways to use these characters exist as your creativity allows. They can add depth, insight, tension, comic relief, or a solid Secondary charactersfoundation.

Fortunately no hard and fast rules exist for secondary characters. Novels would become formulaic. Narrative non-fiction would be boring. You have room for uniqueness. Secondary characters are a tool writers can use to create differences that add interest to your story. For example, when a few romance writers risked including the hero’s POV along with the heroine’s, publishers were amazed at the positive response from readers.

But as with any freedom, there is caution for wise use.

Follow this guideline:

Each secondary character must have an individual purpose for being in your story. All of them have a common purpose to help move the story forward in interest-grabbing ways.


But avoid pitfalls like these:

  • Switching to the secondary character’s POV in the middle of a main character POV moment. This confuses the reader and breaks up the flow.
  • Don’t let a secondary character become so prominent that he or she competes with the main character for the reader’s attention and concern.
  • Avoid a secondary character who doesn’t flow naturally into the story. He or she will feel contrived to the reader.
  • Avoid over-dependence on secondary characters to reveal information at the expense of well-crafted development of the main character.

Use secondary characters for purposes such as these:

  • To deepen the reader’s emotional connection with the main characters. Example: Reveal something about a main character—which may or may not be known by the main character himself or herself—through another character who knows something. The cook, the childhood friend, the enemy, a character in the background of the story who is in a position to have knowledge or insight. We readers will be “in the know” and motivated to continue reading to find out how the main character discovers this secret.
  • To reveal something about the main character’s motivations. Use a secondary character to reveal why a main character does what he does or reacts the way she does. She might not be aware of the whys herself yet. But using a secondary character to give the reader insight may pique the reader’s interest at a particular point in the story.
  • To add to the tension. Use a secondary character to cast suspicion or create mystery or an unexpected twist surrounding one of the main characters. This can be an especially helpful tool to avoid a sagging middle in the story.
  • To help readers understand a main character’s struggle. Sometimes it would be awkward or would slow the pace if the main character attempted to show why a struggle is so hard for him. But a secondary character’s observation may inform the reader succinctly and move the reader to sympathize with and care about the main character’s struggles.

And get feedback from writer friends.

No set rules, only wise guidelines. The topic of secondary characters makes for great discussion among your critique partners. These characters can add a unique element that sets your story apart and creates added interest. Get and share feedback with your writing partners. Continue to revise until they accomplish their purpose.

Is your secondary character fulfilling his or her purpose? How can you improve his or her effectiveness? How have you used a secondary character effectively?


Secondary characters have a specific purpose for being in your story. See guidelines and examples here. Click to Tweet.

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