Monday, November 10, 2008

Writing Advice Monday: Creating Strong Secondary Characters

This week, I'm giving away a copy of Sweetheart Lost and Found, the first book in the Wedding Planners series, which is filled with Strong Secondary Characters, because they are integral to the entire series. So comment away and ask questions!


Secondary characters can be integral to your story. They’re not there as decorations -- make them work for their spot in the book or story. But how?

Try the double duty method -- make the doctor be the brother, too. Lots of plot twists are inherent in integrating characters with the story. If the protagonist’s brother is also the doctor who diagnoses his life-threatening disease, this puts the brother in a touchy situation. Should he tell or not? What are the ramifications of either choice?

In general, you don’t get into the heads of secondary characters (i.e., write in their point of views). Yes, there are authors who do it and do it well, but new authors have a harder time selling something different. Your story, as we’ve discussed, is always about one main protagonist. You can have a second protagonist and an antagonist but everyone else is generally a secondary character.

So since you won’t be writing in the POV (Point of View) of secondary characters, you need to show, instead of tell. If the brother/doctor is having trouble telling the protagonist about his life-threatening disease, then show his hesitation and have the protagonist wonder what’s going on. Leave the mystery for the reader, so she keeps turning the pages.

While we’re on the topic of showing, this can be one of the major uses for secondary characters. Say you have a workaholic woman who has zero tolerance for mistakes and tardiness. On the outside, this person could seem mean, cruel. But if you add in secondary characters -- an invalid mother who depends on her for support; an orphan child who is waiting for her to get the money to complete the adoption process; a brother who desperately needs an organ transplant--you can show the other sides of the character. Now our female lead becomes a woman with a mission, someone with heart who has justification for her actions.

There is a general rule of thumb for the use of secondary characters. If they are named characters (i.e., more than just the waiter who brings the restaurant bill), then they should appear at least twice in the novel. If the author names someone, the reader expects to see that character again. They assume there is a reason you have devoted valuable story space to a name and description. In the best of books, those subsequent appearances of secondary characters are integral to the plot, interweaving all the elements in a complex story that mirrors real life.

Secondary characters can also serve to lighten up a heavy story by providing comic relief. Often, it’s the secondary characters who carry the humor in a story because the protagonist(s) have issues to work through in the book. By creating secondary characters who round out your story and your protagonists, then you get a richer story.

Secondary characters can also serve as foils for your main characters. Foils are the exact opposites -- the best friend who balances out a reclusive man. They are a person who, by strong contrast, underscores the distinctive personality of the protagonist. Think of the quick-to-act-without-thinking Laertes as opposed to the meditative, mired-in-indecision Hamlet.

Secondary characters also serve to push the plot along. They can be the oil in the mix, the detour along the protagonists’ carefully-planned path. Remember, however, not to make every obstacle attributable to a secondary character. The protagonists, who are on that journey of growth and self-discovery, have their own foibles and internal conflicts which also get in the way.

Secondary characters can be a lot of fun to create. Don’t give them short shrift in your work -- develop them and use them to create a fuller, richer story!


  1. Anonymous11:05 AM

    Very useful advice!

  2. Heather W.11:39 AM

    The way that you break these things down, Shirley, makes the process seem a little less daunting. I hadn't realized how much of a science writing, or dissecting a book, really is. I think I'm going to invite Mariah to read some of your blog entries with me - good stuff!

  3. There's much here to use--thanks, Shirley!!

  4. Cathy Shouse11:06 PM


    I've heard this rule about not naming anyone who won't be a character. I think it's tricky. What if the person owns a small business and has employees.

    Do you only mention one employee and make them primary, never mentioning names of others?

    In my WIP I have a lawyer calling the hero. Can they have a conversation about the will and then be done? I have noticed people make even the attorney come into the story again. But what if it just won't work?

    Just wondering...


  5. Cathy,

    You want to try to bring in the important employees. Like in "Marry-Me Christmas," I only have Samantha interact with a couple of employees. I mention others, but don't name them. They are just the other people she hired to do XYZ. Same thing with "Boardroom Bride and Groom." Both of my characters work in large law firms, but I only name and have them interact with a couple of characters. The rest are presumed to be there, and there's one scene where Nick walks past a bunch of offices where people are working, but you don't need to mention Jane, Joe, Harry and Bill. KWIM?


  6. Michelle (MickiB from eHQN)10:05 PM

    How do you know if your story is too light on secondary characters? I tend to have very independent heroines who think they don't need anyone. But I also get tired of stories where the hero or heroine has no living relatives.


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