Who Needs Secondary Characters?

By Laura Drake

I don’t know about you, but I can’t write a book without secondary characters. Yes, I’ve read books without them (or ones where they had tiny roles), but I can’t write that way.

Westley

I’ve never gotten over my crush – how about you?

I mean, where would The Lion King be without the hyenas? Where would Westley be without Fezzik? (or Billy Crystal as Miracle Max – Love him), or, for that matter,  Hamlet without Yorik?

You get the idea.

Yes, secondary characters can be enjoyed for their comedy, their loyalty, or their stupidity…but other than entertainment and to fill word count, why include them?

As Outlets

A secondary character can allow your protagonist to talk. You know that dialog is waaay more compelling than thoughts, right? It also allows you to slip in backstory in an interesting way, because it’s natural to talk about your history with a new friend. The reader gets filled in at the same time as the secondary character, and hopefully it deepens the relationship between your protagonist and your readers!

I’ve written forty pages of a Women’s Fiction novel, and I’m stuck. I’ve written myself into a corner. My heroine is awesome. She’s independent, loyal, stubborn and isolated; trusting no one. Seriously kick-ass.

But.

She can’t spend the rest of the book, thinking. Even doing and thinking is Boooring. It would help for her to have a friend, or a sidekick to talk to, to reveal her backstory, to show her personality. But she’s too closed off to do that!

Since I haven’t solved that puzzle, the book sits unfinished (well,  that and other book deadlines). If anyone has any insight into this dilemma, I’d love to see it in the comments!

As Mirrors

An easy way to show more about the protagonist is to have a sidekick who contrasts; someone pretty much the opposite.  In The Sweet Spot, Charla is an old-fashioned ranch wife who wins blue ribbons at the county fair for her peach pies, only wants to care for her family, and what is within the four walls of her home.

Bella clothesBella, a brassy transplanted New Yorker with a chip on her shoulder and a closet full of badass black, becomes her friend.

At first, they clash (conflict is good, no?) But it turns out that, under the surface, they have a lot in common. They become friends, teaming up against the judgment of the narrow-minded women of the town.

As Depth Charges

Secondary characters add depth to the book. In Nothing Sweeter , the hero is an old fashioned rancher, set in his ways, who has a moral compass chipped out of stone. Think Marlboro Man with an attitude.

His brother, Wyatt, is gay. He left home at eighteen and never has never returned to Colorado, until his father dies at the opening of the book.

Trying to show the brothers’ intricate relationship was a real challenge. Max loves his younger brother. But his lifestyle is so foreign – so opposite his experience and values – he’s also been glad not to have to deal with Wyatt in his face all those years. That’s no longer an option, since they both inherited the land and all the bills that came with it. They have to work together.

It was an intricate dance, to show them as humans. To show Wyatt without stereotype, and Max without making him look like an ignorant hick. Only my readers can tell me if I succeeded, but you can see how a relationship like this could deepen a story.

As Reader Glue

Secondary characters are great sequel/series fodder! In my small town Widow’s Grove series, the only character to appear in all four books will be the owner of the Farmhouse Café, Jesse. She’s the town matchmaker who looks like a ditzy blonde, until you find she’s a math whiz who gave up an MIT education to marry her childhood sweetheart.

I just finished book #2, The Reasons to Stay, and a Delta Force Sniper with jail time in his backstory who befriended a ten year old gangster wannabe is going to be the hero in book # 4. Yeah, there’s an easy arc.

The point is, readers fall in love with those secondary characters, and would run out to buy a book that starred those characters.

So what do you think? Do you use secondary characters in your writing? Why? Who are your faves?

Cover Nothing SweeterThe second in Laura’s Sweet on a Cowboy series is out! Here’s the Publisher’s Weekly review:

“The second entry in Drake’s Sweet on a Cowboy series (after The Sweet Spot) is another character-driven contemporary western with more heart than heat. Rancher Max Jameson, stunned by the unexpected death of his father, is determined to keep the family spread in Steamboat Springs, Colo., despite pressure to sell to a greedy neighbor. His brother, Wyatt, tries to help out, though the sibling relationship is strained due to Max’s discomfort with the fact that Wyatt is gay.

Bree Tanner is scarred physically and mentally after being wrongfully convicted of and imprisoned for her ex-boss’s shady financial dealings; now exonerated and free, she decides to start over by helping to raise rodeo bulls on the Jameson ranch.

Max’s tough exterior masks relatable fear, his relationship with Wyatt is handled gracefully, and Bree’s genuine shame about her past makes her sympathetic. While Max and Bree’s romantic relationship is secondary to their internal and interpersonal struggles, complex characters and some fun full-riding scenes balance out the seriousness.”

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73 Responses to Who Needs Secondary Characters?

  1. I love, love, love, secondary characters!! They fill in plot holes, add a richness to the story that could not be achieved without them, give a needed humorous break to a serious H/H plot line, sometimes threaten to steal the show, and, of course, provide characters for the next book.

    Great post!! I tweeted and I’ll reblog tomorrow.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Thank you for the share, Ella. Tell me about one of your secondary characters – were they mirrors? Opposites?

      • In Desiring Lady Caro, which releases in April, the two man characters are being chased by an evil Venetian marquis. Caro had a horrific experience with a man early on, and doesn’t like to be touched. Huntley, the hero is trying to protect her. So there is lots of angst. The secondary love story, involves Lady Horatia, a widow, with whom Caro’s been residing for 5 years, it’s her godmother and Huntley’s aunt. Unlike Caro, Horatia find a man she can’t keep her hands off as she is traveling the other way trying to draw off the marquis.

  2. Jane says:

    Give your heroine a pet, she can talk to a dog or cat

  3. I agree with everything Ella said. I adore well-written secondary characters.

  4. After much frustration, this is my second attempt as I am not adept at signing in. I’m always losing the original thoughts. So, I’d like to take your challenge and make a suggestion for your WIP. Why not create a polar opposite of your heroine. They could meet on a rainy night when the heroine is trying to change a tire on the car or in jail when the heroine is wrongfully imprisoned for a minor infraction in a small town. Think of the two delicious characters in Stone Mountain — the minister’s daughter who can set a table properly and the rough hillbilly woman who knows how to butcher a pig and survive, The hillbilly woman was as good a secondary character as they get. Perhaps in your story the rough one — with a mysterious background — refers to herself as the “Dark Angel” come to help the heroine. (I’m not suggesting this as a supernatural twist, but one that exists only in the Dark Angel’s mind.) Polar opposites that attract and help each other out. I once had a unique friendship like that — until I lost my friend only a few months after my wife died — and I even patterned a villain after my dear friend. Anyone know us were surprised at our loyalty and friendship.
    Laura — who looks lovely in that hat — I hope this is a help and not too presumptuous on my part as you have had much more success than I have.
    Now, for the second time, I’m going to try to get this published on this exchange.

  5. I think the fact that your character doesn’t trust anyone can lead to a great character arc. Perhaps as your novel progresses your main character evolves and begins to trust again. Who will she trust? How will she meet this person? Why will she trust this person? What made her distrustful in the first place and how does this connect to the person she will trust?
    Just throwing out ideas. Hope they are of help:)

  6. My thoughts on your loyal-but-trusts-no one heroine: give her someone or something to save, who can become a sidekick/trusted friend/sounding board or partner. Even a kick-ass kid, old person, or pet might work, depending on the story.
    My two cents. Anne

    • My thoughts exactly. Maybe she sees her favorite high school teacher on the streets, homeless, and she rescues her. Takes her in, helps her dust off her resume and find a job. That kind of thing could open the door to a lot of history, and end the isolation problem.🙂

    • Laura Drake says:

      Thanks, Anne – she DOES have a sister – the person she’s closest to in the world – but she’s in a mental institution in a coma!

      Why, oh why do I do this to myself? Always the impossible with me…

  7. I would be lost without my secondary characters. My current WIP has harsh scenes involving ancient human trafficking and human sacrifice. My main character trusts few people and doesn’t really have anyone close enough to really talk to in the beginning, but the love interest’s best friend has a dry wit that I often use to defuse the tension.

  8. Such a great post, Laura, and it really made me think about how to create the characters for my next book. I hadn’t given thought to making a pair of characters total opposites to fuel the tension and let the reader know the characters better. Very helpful. Thank you.

  9. Barbara DeLong says:

    I’m pretty much in the same dilemma, Laura. The hero and heroine of my witch paranormal are in a somewhat secluded cabin in the woods. So far my secondary characters are the wild animals she can “talk” to. Still working on what humans to bring in and for what purpose. . .
    I like the suggestion of your heroine saving someone in trouble – she can’t ignore that, right? A reluctant friendship and trust can develop from there.

  10. Orly Konig Lopez says:

    I love, LOVE secondary characters. Probably have as much fun coming up with their stories as for the main character. There’s one in my new WIP that I want to go hug every time I think of him – and he hasn’t even entered the story yet.

    And as for your WF, Laura … we’re going to have fun with that MC. I had a lightbulb moment this morning.🙂

  11. I do love secondary characters–though more than a few end up stealing the spotlight, then hop ship to become the main characters of their own series. (The protagonists for my main “Deadly Drinks” series were originally secondary characters in a comic I made in high school, for example).
    Still, I like the points you brought up, particularly about using secondary characters to show us more of the main characters, through use of interaction and differences. I think that’s the important point to take home–side characters can be fun and all, but they also need to have a purpose and further the plot or characterization in some way.
    Oh, and my two cents on your isolated heroine idea: Make it so she has to deal with the secondary character, whether she wants to or not. I’m not sure what kind of genre she’s in, so I can’t give as specific examples as I’d like, but if there’s some sort of “glue” present to hold her to another character, that not only provides interaction, but conflict as she tries to pull away.
    Say, during one of her badass moments, she ends up saving or running into your secondary. Protagonist wouldn’t give the secondary a thought, but this secondary has information she needs, and is being chased (or doesn’t have a place to go, or needs protection for some other reason), so the protagonist has to keep this secondary around. But it’s slow work getting the info, or the two need to begrudgingly work together…
    Anne Civitano and Kristy K. James comments are also plausible, and involve the protagonist willingly opening up to talk to or help someone–which has both advantages and disadvantages with the protagonist you seem to be working with. It all depends on what you want to do, and how you want your protag to interact with others.
    Hope this helps!

    • Laura Drake says:

      Helps a lot, Dorian – and EVERYONE! I’m SO glad I asked – you guys have given me so much great feedback! Note to self: ask more often – WITS commenters know a LOT!

  12. Second characters are so much fun and can add so much to the story. Of course, a writer has to be careful that the second characters do not take over the story.

    • Orly Konig Lopez says:

      That’s very true. I recently read a book where I really liked a couple of the secondary characters, HATED the main character.

      • Laura Drake says:

        Wow, don’t think I’ve ever seen that done before, Orly. Sounds like it would fit in a YA…. Was it?

        • Orly Konig Lopez says:

          It was women’s fiction. Something about that main character just pissed me off. Go figure. But one of her secondary characters was awesome – the kind of lady you want to invite over for spiked coffee and hear HER stories. 🙂

      • Yes I have read several books where I could care less about the main character but loved some of the side characters. It is hard to root for the main character when you do not care for her. I liked the secondary character much better, but could not relate to why she remained with the main character whom I felt was a heartless, manipulative bitch.

        • Laura Drake says:

          Oh yes, now that I think of it, I read a book like that once too! The only reason I hung in there til the end was because I liked the 2ndary character!

  13. Calisa Rhose says:

    I love when a secondary character adds unexpected humor in a book. Like Ringo Murphy in Heather Graham’s Nightwalker, he cracked me up every time he opened his mouth, and he was dead!

  14. jbiggar2013 says:

    I think secondary characters add a lot of dimension to a book. In real life we’re surrounded with people we casually know as well as good, and not so good, friends. I have as much fun writing my secondary characters as I do my main ones, sometimes more because they have more freedom than the others do.🙂

    • Laura Drake says:

      You know, that’s true, jbiggar. Never thought about that. The secondary character, though they may have backstory, usually doesn’t need to be as ‘fleshed out’ as the main character — you can get away with more.

  15. Excellent post, Laura! As a mystery writer I also love my secondary characters, for the additional reason that they are not required to survive. Heh heh heh.

  16. ericjbaker says:

    Secondary characters are great for revealing the main character and eliminating exposition in the process. My current project begins the middle and then goes back to the beginning to reveal How They Got There. The secondary character paired with my heroine on page one is essential for revealing who she is now, which (I hope) will make her journey all the more interesting when I go back to the chronological beginning.

    As for getting stuck in the story, I suggest throwing a curveball at your main character that she has no choice but to address, even if it’s a phone call or a knock on the door.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Eric, you reminded me of the old quote by I think Elmore Leonard (? not sure) when he got stuck in a book, he’d have someone enter the room with a gun in their hand!

      You’re brave – I’d never have the guts to write out of chronological order! Great challenge to yourself.

      • ericjbaker says:

        Elmore Leonard is one of my favs. I’ve shot a lot of characters just to shake things up.😉

        Less bravery and more a happy accident. I wrote a short story that started in the middle, and I liked it enough to turn it into a novel. I’ve moved the text around a few ways to see how it works, and it’s more intriguing with the existing story as the opening. I don’t write from an outline, so we’ll see if I can whip up a good third act when I get there.

  17. Sharla Rae says:

    Laura, I think your secondary character for your closed off heroine could be an old curmudgeon neighbor or co-worker. Sometimes people we don’t like overly much can say something surprisingly profound and make us take a second look at ourselves/situations. Perhaps this secondary character is as closed off as your main character but every once in a while they each other a poke. Then maybe Mr. or MS crabby, runs into something/an emergency and is forced to turn the main character. Both realize they see some of themselves in the other person — that is their stand-offish lonesomeness. And since we all know that sometimes it’s easier to open up to a stranger …. well, you can “slowly” turn that crabby neighbor or co-worker into a confident and they almost like each other.🙂

  18. Can’t wait to read your women’s fiction. Everyone had such great ideas – my only suggestion is give her a pet to talk to until some humans come on the scene!🙂

    • Laura Drake says:

      Well, you just reminded me too, Deb – this is probably my first book without an animal secondary character! Wow, I never thought I’d write one without that!

  19. ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

    I LOVE secondary characters. So much depth can be added to the story and the protagonist’s character growth. I also think they are important to give authenticity to a story. Sure, we don’t have to expand upon a character’s entire family (cousins, aunts/uncles, whatever), but people, even in isolation, still interact with others around them.

    When I think about your conundrum, I first see some really GREAT ideas in the comments. Forcing your protagonist to have to deal with someone or solve another’s problem is a great way to show growth and your character’s strength.

    I think you could show a lot in her observations of others’ behavior, too. Maybe she’s at work (or the store or a restaurant or wherever) and she overhears a conversation and inserts her own thoughts as she witnesses the scene. I think even the small interactions can go a long way, too. What happens when someone helping in the chute before a ride makes a joke that triggers a memory? What happens when she’s at the gas station (inside the store) and someone spills soda all over her? How does she react when someone keeps trying to be her friend? A woman friend is a really great thing to have in WF – maybe you can introduce a character that keeps trying to be her friend. A photographer. A journalist. A fan. The cashier at the gas station.

    Okay, now I’m getting carried away. I love this kind of brainstorming of sorts. Even if you don’t use any of our actual ideas, hopefully they’re triggering your brain like this sort of chatter does for me.🙂

    • Laura Drake says:

      Oh Janet, this is awesome! You are so right – her observations of others’ behavior, and what she thinks of that, tells a lot about HER! You’re brilliant! Thank you!

  20. Laura, you know that I’ve fallen for Novy (a secondary character in my almost-finished WIP), don’t you? This has never happened to me before. I figure it’s a good thing–that I’m connecting more *heaven forbid* emotionally in my writing.
    -Fae

  21. I’m thinking with your dilemma of the stubborn, yet loyal, character; you could probably get her to reveal herself through helping another younger, weaker person work through difficulties. Often strong people know how to help others, but not how to help themselves.

  22. emlee5134 says:

    Laura this is one of your “bestest” posts, and the comments are even more learning for my starved writing brain. I’m trying to put credible secondary characters in my first work to be able to write my second as a sequel. And maybe a third. Hard work if you can get it. Thanks again for a great post. Ordered the two books!

    • Laura Drake says:

      Thank you, Emlee! I’ve learned from our followers on this post – I’m bringing problems to you guys more often! Let me know if you like the books!

  23. littlemissw says:

    I love secondary characters too (seems I’m one of the crowd). I read a lot of Terry Pratchett and his secondary characters are always unique and fully rounded.

    I know you’ve already received a lot of awesome advice but when you said your protagonist had a sister in a coma I thought that might be perfect as a secondary character. She can talk to her sister without fear of judgment or betrayal because she can’t tell anyone…but maybe someone overhears, a nurse or something…or not. Not sure on that one but, if it were me, I definitely be using the sister angle.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Yes, I think I am going to do that, Littlemiss. She’s in a catatonic state, but I’m going to have her call every night and talk to her sister – maybe they can put headphones on her or something…. The only person in the world she’s connected to is her little sister, and leaving her hurts the protag more.

  24. Harliqueen says:

    Secondary characters are amazingly important, feels a bit bad calling them ‘secondary’, sounds like they’re less important somehow.

    Great post!

    • Laura Drake says:

      You know, I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right, Harliqueen! I’ve had reviews that said the reader fell in love with one of the bulls in my book! Gotta love a tiny bull named Fire Ant!

  25. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    If you’ve read my books, you know how much I love my secondary characters, and the reason I love this great post from WITS!!

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  27. Okay, Laura – a semi-brilliant solution occurred to me as I started to fall asleep last night . . . your protagonist lives in a haunted house and has conversations with . . . wait for it . . . a GHOST!

    Or — she has a teeny mental health problem and has conversations with people in her head that she THINKS are real.

    Just joking, of course. Yes, my name is Debbie and I write paranormals!🙂

    • Laura Drake says:

      Or wait! She’s taking a bath in a lake, and meets one of your beautiful mermaids!
      Thanks, Deb… Hey, maybe this will give you ideas for your next book!

  28. Kate Sparkes says:

    Oh, secondary characters… I can’t imagine loving a story that didn’t have them! They add so much to the plot, and as you said, they’re vital if readers are going to get to know the protagonist in a way that doesn’t seem forced. I like the suggestions everyone has made for your own story, especially her being forced into a relationship with a secondary character and/or showing her personality through her observations of other people. Either would work without sacrificing your protagonist’s independence.

    I adore my own secondary characters. They make me laugh, they break my heart, one of them is demanding a spin-off… you don’t even want to get me started on them. My favourites are a pair of mer-folk, a brother and sister who know my MMC way back when and then come back into his life half-way through book one. Between the two of them they round out his back-story, add tension to the romantic sub-plot, force my MMC to confront his feelings about the FMC, move the plot forward and avert disaster, and their loyalty to their friends/family contrasts SO nicely with my main fellow’s deceit/treachery and his complete misunderstanding of what love is…

    Sorry. Told you not to get me started.😉

  29. I didn’t read all of the other comments so maybe someone already offered this…. but maybe a stranger? If she is closed off, sometimes it’s a stranger in a diner, at a gas station, an elevator…etc. that can bring out a conversation. Talking to strangers is easier sometimes than to people who know you. Doesn’t have to be a man or love interest, could be an old woman, someone wise and snarky and funny and tells her to get over herself. I love old smartassed characters, they breathe so much life into a story.

    Just my two cents.🙂 Good luck!

  30. Shanda says:

    Great post. I love secondary characters! They can be untethered-ish funny and quirky without having to have arcs and such– though if you pull that off, brilliant! I almost always want the next book to be about those secondary people who added color to the MC’s world. A hook for me to buy your next book.
    For your WF WIP, I love some of the ideas others offered. I too thought that the MC should have a foil in another closed off character who will show her how not to be or vice versa. S/he, SC, could let the MC see just how she comes off to others and be that plot point for the character arc/growth.
    OR Could she have a “Save the Cat” moment where the “cat” is a kid who latches onto her and asks 20 questions and offers up childish insight that hits the MC’s core fears, etc?

  31. Forwarded this info to my adult creative writing students. One of the clearest and most informative articles I’ve seen about secondary characters and how to use them to the best advantage in moving a story forward. Thanks.

  32. Robyn LaRue says:

    My secondary characters are usually embroiled in the sub plots. Love them.🙂 For yours, she could have an old friend who knows everything about her and alludes to thinks in dialog, or she could be seeing a therapist, or she could meet a stranger in a coffee shop or something that she might see again. We have the strangest tendency to pour our hearts out to strangers. Would love to hear how you solved it.🙂

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