We spend countless hours crafting, shaping and moulding our protagonists and antagonists throughout each act in our stories. We craft backstories that justify their flaws and quirks, develop wants and needs that motivate them through their journey, all in an effort to write characters that come alive on the page. To create a protagonist that feels as real as the living and breathing people around us.
It an exhausting process but one that must be repeated for our secondary characters, too. If you don’t take the time to create a cast of glittering secondary characters, it will quickly feel like your protagonist is walking through a lifeless painting.
So, what can we do to make our secondary characters pop, sparkle and shine? Here are a few tips:
Like everything else in your story, your secondary characters need to serve a purpose. If they don’t serve any purpose, they will just distract your reader and weigh your story down. Your secondary characters can serve many purposes. Here are a couple of my favourites:
- Provide solutions that your main character could not see (perhaps because of their flaw)
- Verbalise the thoughts feelings of a larger group of people within your story, creating tension
- Create conflict, particularly with the main character
- Hint at the story’s theme
- Highlight moments of characterization
- Drive the plot forward in ways your protagonist or antagonist cannot
Now that you have given your secondary character a purpose, it’s time to make them shine on the page. There are two ways in which you can do this. The first is to make them distinctive. Give something that sets them apart from everyone else in the story.
I’m not saying give them a wild and wacky appearance. Of course, this is always an option. Instead, give them a quality or quirk that makes them instantly recognisable. Maybe they always enter the room at the wrong time? Perhaps they are always hungry? Or, maybe, they have an unhealthy obsession with explosives?
The power of making your characters (main/secondary) distinctive is incomparable. For example, Ruta Sepetys writes a spectacular secondary character in Salt to the Sea. The character, an old man called, is a humble shoemaker.
The majority of his narrative is tied in with the image of shoes. He makes observations about the people that he meets based on their footwear. He gives sound advice using the imagery of the shoemaking process, bestowing on the other characters lessons of patience, love and dedication. He is a character that has stuck in my mind since I read the book almost three years ago, which is very impressive for a secondary character.
Side note: If you haven’t read Salt to the Sea, I highly recommend you do. There are a whole host of secondary characters in this story that really shine on the page.
The second method for strengthening secondary characters is crafting subplots. As well as adding depth, texture and dimension to your main plot, sub-plots also open up the world within your story. You can, and should, have subplots centre around your protagonist. However, giving your secondary characters a plot (subplot) of their own is a great way to give you readers a bit more variety.
It’s important that the subplot does not overshadow the main plot. Instead, your subplots should intertwine with your main plot to support themes and characterization, as well as create conflict and obstacles. This makes them perfect for our secondary characters.
Plus, if you want your secondary characters to feel real, you need to give them their own wants, desires and backstories. Otherwise, they will read as lifeless mannequins merely pointing your protagonist in the right direction.
Let’s look at some examples:
Hermonie and Ron’s budding relationship is a subplot. Hagrid’s antics with numerous magical creatures create a number of subplots in the Harry Potter series (e.g. Norbit the dragon causes Harry and Malfoy to serve detention in the forbidden forest. A similar subplot is seen in the third book, this time in the form of Buckbeak.)
The Perfect Example
Now we’ve talked about how to write a spectacular secondary character, I will leave you with one final example. This secondary character embodies all of the points that we have discussed in this post. As such, I’m going to call this character the perfect example of a spectacular secondary character.
In comparison to other characters in the books (Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood The Weasley Twins,) Seamus has a rather minute role. Despite this, his role in the story is an important one. The story simply wouldn’t be the same without him. Why?
- His knack for blowing things up in classes provides some well-needed comedic relief from the tension that builds in the story.
- He verbalises a lot of the hate and distrust that the wizarding world feel towards Harry in the later books.
- Most importantly, he has his own miniscule subplot. His distinctive quality (explosion-prone) actually plays an important role in the battle of Hogwarts.
Neville Longbottom: Are you really giving us permission to do this?
Minerva McGonagall: Yes, Longbottom.
Neville Longbottom: Blow it up? Boom?
Minerva McGonagall: BOOM!
Minerva McGonagall: Why don’t you confer with Mr. Finnigan? As I recall, he has a particular proclivity for pyrotechnics.
Seamus Finnigan: I can bring it down!
Minerva McGonagall: That’s the spirit, now away you go.
Do you have any tips and tricks for writing secondary characters?