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?

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27 Responses

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  1. Carol Ashby says:

    I love secondary characters as the springboard into a future novel in a series. The heroine of the book I’m bringing to market in May has a 13-year-old brother with a lively sense of humor, a kind heart, and a sharp mind. He will return next year as a young man of 21 to be the hero in a later volume of the series. His best friend and the father of the male lead in the current book are the other two main male characters in the sequel. Each book can stand alone, but a reader of the second who’s read the first might have a richer experience from knowing the details of the main characters’ history.
    *I’ve developed the habit of keeping my eye open for future plots where my secondaries can become primaries or my primaries become secondaries in a later volume.

    • I’m guessing, Carol, that you have a spreadsheet for that (says she who wears the work title Excel Queen).

      • Carol Ashby says:

        Funny you should mention Excel spreadsheets, Shirlee. I have them for:
        *who has beta-read or critiqued which version (file date in title) of each novel (super handy for acknowledgements)
        *the word count of each chapter of a novel as it goes through multiple edits (encouraging as my edits make it tighter and tighter)
        *author-related webinars with file names of my notes
        *international visitors to my blog and Roman history website (40 countries so far, with Roman Empire crime and punishment being the favorite search that finds me)
        *the date of the latest version of each Roman article (I update with new info regularly)
        *marketing efforts
        *financials related to writing.
        Except for the website Excels, I’d heartily recommend all authors keep those files.
        *But no Excel sheet on my characters. They are like friends and not-so-friendly people living in my memory like real humans. I don’t need to keep spreadsheets on my friends.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Good point, Carol. Add to the list: “future main character” to transition from purposeful secondary character in one book to the main character in future book.

  2. I keep thinking that maybe any story would be better if a large and unruly dog were added. Have you guessed, I own and love a large and unruly dog? I can just see such a dog galloping through Lady Catherine’s tea parlor in Pride and Prejudice, tackling the young preacher in The Scarlet Letter and slurping his face until he was brave enough to confess, or perhaps rampaging through Dante’s Inferno! I wish we could post pics here so you guys could see our unruly fuzzy. She’s a doll baby. 100 pounds of love. But yes, I love secondary characters, they are often my favorite. From the very first Harry Potter book, Snape was my favorite. You just loved hating him and by the end, you just loved him. Often secondary characters die a heroic death, there is one in The Beyonders Books I just adore. Oh how I wept when he died. Secondary characters can become true friends.

    • I love the word-picture you painted of your dog, Kristen! I think she and our Strawberry Beast would make an unbeatable team.
      * Snape’s my favourite HP character, too. I frankly get a bit tired of Harry; but Snape always lets in a blast of bracing air.

      • Andrew, this makes me wonder what manner of critter could be named The Strawberry Beast. Sounds fun and fuzzy!

      • Kristen, The Strawberry Beast is Strawberry The Baby Bullmastiff. She showed up in a neighbour’s arms, too weak to walk and too sad to raise her head.
        * Now she’s massive and relentlessly friendly, and her Strawberry Hugs would threaten to asphyxiate Sylvester Stallone. Fortunately, I’m considerably bigger than Sly!

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Kristen, can you really picture either Lady Catherine or Mr. Darcy having a dog that wasn’t impeccably well trained?

      • Carol, I can definitely see Mr. Darcy with a dog who, failing all tests of civilized deportment, is yet wholly loved.
        * Rather like the way God loves us.

      • This dog would never belong to Lady Catherine or Mr. Darcy. This is Elizabeth’s dog all the way … or perhaps Lydia’s. Oh and in a complete “Duh” moment I realized that you all have seen a picture of our Leia … she is my avatar, although she was much smaller when she posed in the tiara.

    • I love these images of altering stories with your big unruly Doll Baby, Kristen! It seems like pets can definitely add fun, caring, and depth to stories as they reveal aspects of characters. 🙂

  3. Great article! Thanks so much.

  4. Great article, Mary, and your suggestions are excellent.
    * To me, an effective secondary character has to have his or her own independent existence, convincing of full depth and individual value. An example of this might be Sir John Falstaff, the hedonistic and lovable rogue in Henry IV and Henry V.
    * The friend and boon companion of the young Prince Hal, Falstaff is eventually outgrown when Henry become king, and dies from a broken heart from the rejection embodied in Henry’s final words to him:
    “I know thee not, old man.”
    * Henry becomes a more nuanced character; we’ve learned something about him that is both necessary and unsettling.
    * As for Falstaff…he sees the metaphorical death of his beloved Prince Hal, and our hearts break with his.

  5. If I may, I’d like to add ‘acting as a balance’ to the list of secondary-character functions.
    * A good example is found in the film “Bridge On The River Kwai”. The increasingly divorced-from-reality protagonist-antagonist pair, the British Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese prison camp commandant Colonel Saito, are challenged and defined in their increasing madness by the British medical officer, Major Clipton.
    * The doctor’s role is, I think, vital; he provides the fixed moral point around which the story can revolve, keyed to the time-period in which the film is set. Without him, the viewer would be left with contrasting ambiguities that would inevitably be viewed through the lenses of the viewer’s own perceptions and enculturation, and would leave the film’s message a muddy, misty moral morass, far more dated in its overall effect than the clear and ringing presentation of its period-contemporary values.

  6. This is a timely post for me, Mary. I’m thinking about characters for a big rewrite, and secondary characters are pretty important! I’ve used secondary characters to be a sounding board for my main characters. They are also great voices of truth, which I love doing with them.
    *Your suggestions started spinning some ideas in my mind for secondary characters. I like your suggestions for how they can add tension. 🙂

  7. Carol Ashby says:

    Animals are great secondary characters, and not just furry dogs. A horse plays an essential secondary character role in three of my plots. They even play a vital role in the first scene of two of them.
    And then there’s the injured bunny that the ruthless brother of the protagonist rescues at the beginning of my published novel, only to make rabbit stew a few scenes later. No, not really, but my husband thought rescuing the bunny would be a way to make the villain more likeable while the stew would reveal his true character.

  8. I try to make sure my secondaries always fulfill a purpose, whether it’s right away, or down the line. My own personal category for this is called “not wasting oxygen”. They either serve a purpose, or they’re gone. But I did have to learn that the (not very) hard way, because word count has no spare air for pointless characters.
    Even seemingly boring Frank the telegraph operator/livery owner gets his day in the sun. Or should I say, “jour au soleil”? (joo oh so-lay)
    Muahahaha….

    • Loyd Uglow says:

      Jennifer, I agree with you that they need to fulfill a purpose. I often seem to see my own secondary characters as too utilitarian, however, and not as real human beings in their own right.

  9. Carol Ashby says:

    Off topic: Andrew’s in a lot of pain today. Prayers appreciated.