The Others and the Extras: The Importance of Secondary Characters

A Minor CharacterOh, the lament of the poor minor character!

Pushed to the sidelines, knowing full well that they are not the focus of the story.

Love is probably not in the cards for them. They are the ones injured in the line of duty or acting as living joke. Characters created merely to be a soundboard for the main characters, or something for the reader to compare the main character to in the universe of the story. A tool, nothing more.

It would be a thankless life, I am sure, if they were real. Probably spent at the refreshment table, trying not to fall asleep as they wait for their big moment in the sun. And then the scene arrives, there are a few quick jokes, maybe a heart-to-heart and then they are back at the table, once again snacking on one too many cookies.  Waiting… always waiting.

Everything about the secondary character revolves around the main character. An existence built solely around another’s experiences. Even if a secondary character dies, it is a moment for the main character to reflect upon their own life decisions… unless they are an evil secondary character than usually they are left on the floor somewhere, discarded, a bloody remain for someone else to find later (but we never read about or see that bit in movies or television).

Yet, for me, the secondary characters are important; because like a missed plot point, an awkward description, or a writing oops, they have the power to rip me out of a story, leaving me on the sidelines of a tale just like them.

The image of Charles Dickens I have in my Dining RoomCharles Dickens was the master of the side characters, his book are filled with marvelous secondary characters; and in each book, each chapter almost always seems to introduce a new one. They can be comic, yes, but also tragic, surprising and powerful. Each of them are wonderfully layered (Well, honestly, maybe not in The Pickwick Papers, but it was his first book so we will give him the benefit of the doubt), showing how much of a master he was at character development.

It is an art to create a throng like that! Consider a book like Oliver Twist, where next to his gathering oddities, our hero, the little Oliver (the heart of the tale), is almost drab in comparison.  The Artful Dodger, Mr. Bumble, Fagin, the terrifying Bill Sykes, the tragic Nancy… Yes, in Dickens the minor characters are what make his books.

Now there is a good chance that this was all just part of Dickens’ incredible talent, and we can each only dream of having this ability to create so many credible secondary characters, but there are things each of us can do to make our own just as rich, just as powerful, and just as important.

Take the Time

No one ever said writing a book was easy. It is an artform, like playing the piano or painting or dancing; and, like those artforms, it should be difficult. Writing a book should be the hardest thing you ever attempt to do!

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary fiction these days and one thing that seems to come up again and again for me is the lack of substance in the secondary characters. Yes, I am speaking in broad terms, but they feel like supporting members of a sitcom sometime; hired merely to appear and  make a few quick lines and leave.

Writers, it’s unfair to the character, and it is unfair to your readers.

That’s not to say your supporting characters can’t come in to do the few lines, but make sure they are fully realized so the “performance” feels real. This means, taking the time to break down the character, finding their own plot, their own story. You might, of course, not use any of this in the book, but the character will feel more real for you the author if you go to this trouble. And if all of the character feel real to you, they will feel real for your audience as well.

One of my favorite suggestions for writers is to go out and listen to people. Sit at a coffee shop or a restaurant and simply observe the people around you (Please don’t stare!).

  • Listen to the meter of a person’s voice. Is there a beat or a rhythm to their conversation?
  • How do they breath in a speech or take their pauses
  • How do they laugh? (What does the laugh sound like?)
  • How do they sit? Do they lean forward or back? Do they use their hands or arms a lot while talking?

Each of these descriptions, when added to a character (no matter how minor) will make them as real as the person you are spying on… I mean observing, not spying.

Avoid Stereotypes

I hate stereotypes.

All good writers should hate stereotypes.

Many times when you bring up the term people think of it on purely racial or sexual lines, but that is only one part. There are so many different kinds of stereotypes in our world from the dumb jock and cheerleader to the corrupt politician. The fact is, if you (the writer) can’t see a character beyond a two-word description, chances are you have a stereotype right there.

And remember, there is also a good chance if you are using a stereotype, chances are you are insulting someone, somewhere. No one wants to insult a reader.

Like with my discussion above, this is another example of taking the time to fix a situation. Yes, when we create a first draft of a book, not everything is as fleshed out as it should be (even the characters), but it is in the re-reading of the manuscript, the continuous editing that characters should become something more.

And here is the hard truth…. Sometimes a character is wrong for the “role” we create for them. If after editing and editing and editing, a character still seems to you like a shadow of a real person, edit them out. Maybe create a new character to fill that position. Chances are that if a character doesn’t seem to step out of the bounds of a two-dimensional role there is a chance they might never do it… especially if they began life as a stereotype.

Everyone Grows

A Jane Austen DaydreamWhen I was writing my new novel A Jane Austen Daydream I could not stress enough over character development. This is not surprising when one considers my main character is Jane Austen. Along with Shakespeare and Mark Twain, I can’t imagine a more foreboding literary figure to capture on paper. And in the book, I try to re-imagine her life as she might have wanted it, with plots and characters reminiscent of her own books.

One thing I have always admired in Miss Austen’s novels is character growth. Yes, in Pride and Prejudice Darcy and Elizabeth both grow, but other characters do as well. This is not true for all of them, of course (the silly mother is still the silly mother). Remember though, character growth doesn’t always mean growing into something better or learning a lesson… It just means growing. being different than they were on page 1.

For my novel, knowing the mountain I was attempting to climb in making a book like this, I agonized over each character. I have the notebooks to prove it, and by the time I finished the book, I felt I could look each character straight in the eye. They were that real for me.

Remember, we are all different than we were last year or even earlier in the week. Take the time to ask how the story impacts and changes each of the players. No one lives in a vacuum… not even fictional characters.

Quirks Are Good

We are all quirky.

We all have them even though we don’t always want to admit it. Some would say this writing blog is my quirk. So be it, I embrace my quirkiness of it!

One thing Charles Dickens did very well is give his characters quirks that moved them into the realm of literary legend, no matter how small. It might be a unique speech pattern or a bizarre passion for something, but they became real to us, even sometimes these quirks can become heartwarming.

Consider the minor character of Mr. Wemmick from Great Expectations; clerk by day to an attorney, but at night he would go home to a castle he made out of his cottage. It is a charming and fun insight into a character that today in a book might be simply cast as “Clerk 1.” An extra to be forgotten.

Now, I’m not saying you need to do something that extreme with a character and build a castle, but consider this…. Let’s say you have a character that is a clerk:

  • What is on their desk? Anything odd or unique? Is the desk messy or clean?
  • Do they have a wallpaper on their computer? What is it a picture of?
  • How do they dress?
  • How do they act around the others in the office? Are they shy, timid? Or bold? Inappropriate?
  • Is there anything on the wall of their office? Quotes? Pictures? Scribbled notes?

And those are only a few suggestions. But just with starting with questions like that, a character can grow into someone who is more than a vessel that may simply answers a hero (or heroine’s) questions. Clerk 1 can come alive!

In someone else’s story we are all minor characters.

It is a bleak thought; wondering if we are the comic relief player or an unintentional scoundrel. Whatever the case, each of us, every single one of us, is a full-fledged individual with aspirations, hopes, a past, a future. Giving those to your characters, every single one of them, will make them as human as you and me.

Your audience (and your characters) will thank you.

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverIf you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my published books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen DaydreamMaximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous DareMy Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my author page here, or Doors and Megan as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!

21 thoughts on “The Others and the Extras: The Importance of Secondary Characters

  1. So very true. And the lack of secondary character development does seem to be, as you mentioned, more of a contemporary problem in fiction. I love secondary characters, and usually include more of them than I should, but I like a rounded story world. I think it’s important as well that each character – secondary or primary – has a unique view of all the other characters. Each character has unique chemistry with the individuals around him; friction, biases, feuds – like you said, they are not simply revolving around the central character, but living their own lives and the narrative should reflect this. One of my protagonists is guilty of slotting others away into stereotypical shelves, but she’s proven wrong time and time again, and watching her grow beyond her preconceived notions has been really fun as a writer.

    Excellent post! Secondary characters get short shrift too often and I’m glad someone’s talking about it!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. Like I said, I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary fiction recently and noticing it as a trend more and more. I wonder if television is to blame. LOL.

      Your point about the relationship to the character is important. That could be a post all by itself.

      Thanks again! Cheers!

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  3. Even the strongest protagonist cannot carry a story or a novel on his or her own. A protagonist needs a realistic world peopled with realistic secondary players and provide the sort of personal interaction and conflict that leads to plot movement and character development. Asking your hero to interact with stick figures is the same as asking an athlete to lift hollow weights. It is wasted action and the effort will not payoff in any meaningful way. Good post, Scott.

  4. Thanks for posting about this, Scott! I was just thinking about this the other day. Some of my favorite characters to write are my supporting characters. I try to always give them an integral part of the story, even though their “face time” on the pages might be brief. It is important to me that they have the capability to entice readers to “feel” for them after the story is over. The concept of a story is seldom able to be contained within a box. I like a tale to have the potential to keep going, perhaps in the reader’s mind, and secondary characters can help make that happen. Nice post!

  5. One of the masters of giving life to secondary characters, in my opinion, is the mystery writer Donald Westlake. I get the feeling that anyone who shows up in the pages of a Westlake novel could have been a main character, and this particular story just happened to focus on someone else.

    That’s something I try to emulate, in fact I’ll often stop and think through how the events in my novel would look from another character’s perspective. I also try to make sure that I know what each character’s individual goals are in a scene, because they aren’t always the same as the main character.

    • Good points.

      I don’t know the writer you mention (sounds interesting), but I’m reading crime writer Steve Hamilton which kind of inspired this post. His secondary characters are kind of lifeless. To be honest, it feels like he is just going through the motions, but why I couldn’t say…

      Thanks for writing.

  6. Scott, another excellent post. This is why I limit the number of secondary characters. I want them to be an asset to the story and not just someone to increase word count. I enjoy reading books where all the characters are strong and have something of significance to add to the main character. I definitely plan to read your book, partly because a reviewer stated that I wrote like Jane Austin. LOL. Thanks.

    • Austen? A wonderful compliment. I would print that and put it in a frame if it was me! LOL

      I do hope you enjoy the book. I’m really proud of it. When you do read it, please contact me to tell me what you think.

      Thanks for writing.

  7. Indeed, indeed.

    Character creation is one of my favorite aspects of writing, and I always strive to give my “NPCs” (non-protagonist characters, ha-ha) enough flavor to leave the reader with the impression that there’s more going on with them than just their interactions with the heroes.

  8. Great post, Scott. I so much prefer reading books where the secondary characters are fleshed out and interesting–making me want to know their stories too. Without them the main character’s world just isn’t as inviting!

  9. I’ve spent the better part of my life as a secondary character, and I have to admit I love Dickens’ characters! Even some of the less loveable ones, because you remember them!

  10. This really made me think, made me wonder if I’ve ever unintentionally made my minor players less real. (I hope not!) I love what you said about us all being minor characters. How true! If we aren’t any less human for this, then why should our fictional characters be demoted to the land of the two-dimensional? Great post!

    I smiled at the bit on spying in a coffee shop…I mean people-watching. I would never spy. 😉

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