Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Virtually every story features at least two characters, either pitting them against one another or having them working toward a shared goal. This mirrors our lives, where we’re in contact with others daily, sometimes hourly. Sometimes every single moment of every single day.
Even the least social among us must rely on or deal with others. Unless we’re totally self-sufficient, someone else makes our clothing or our food or our mode of transportation or our homes.
We need other people.
We need them for their gifts and skills, and we need them socially and relationally. We need others around for us to be able to function at our best.
Yes, some people could no doubt survive alone in the wilderness and be content. But that wouldn’t work for most of us. We do need other humans. And we need them for a host of reasons.
The lead characters in our stories also need others. They need family, friends, those who agree with them and those who challenge them.
They need lovers and employees and people to help get them from point A to point B. They need other characters to people their adventures so their worlds resemble real ones, where others go about their own business as we go about ours, sometimes interacting, sometimes crossing paths, sometimes only viewing one another in the most desultory ways, and other times joining in common purpose.
As 3-D people need others, so do fictional characters. It is not good for man to be alone. Our protagonists need the presence of other people. Our stories need the messiness and complications of multiple characters.
Writers need to include secondary characters in a variety of roles for stories to ring true and to be full in a way that mimics a real world.
Could a story feature a sole character at battle with himself or fighting the loneliness of a world void of others? Of course it could. We can try anything, make almost any idea work. But such stories are the exception. For the most part, we’ll populate our stories with characters (most often humans, though not always) who orbit our main characters to some purpose.
Secondary characters, the second bananas of the title, play a wide range of roles in our fiction. I’m talking about characters other than the traditional protagonist and antagonist, different from the hero and heroine of romance. These main characters obviously have their own roles, roles different from the characters who fall below them in their importance for the story.
Yet even secondary characters are not created equal. Each doesn’t need or deserve the same amount of page time. Some get little dialogue while others might challenge your main character for the amount of story time they talk or are featured.
Some secondary characters are walk-ons, in a scene merely to flesh it out, to bring reality and/or a human presence to a setting that requires the presence of other people.
Let’s look at secondary characters, characters other than protagonist and antagonist, and explore their purposes for fiction.
The cast of secondary characters can feature a lead character’s (LC) best friend. This may mean the two spend a lot of time together in social situations. The best friend may encourage the main character into engaging in reckless behavior or he may act as his conscience, steering him away from trouble.
This best friend could be family or someone so close that the LC treats him as family. This means friction as well as camaraderie features in the relationship.
Lead characters, even loners, often have one friend they can rely on, another character whose strengths complement their own weaknesses. This means they can go to this character when in need. They can get counsel and advice or even practical assistance.
But having a good friend also means an emotional component, so the other character can let the LC down or agitate him in ways no other character can. It means that the secondary character can easily and cruelly betray the LC. It means not only a source of help for the LC but a potential source of conflict.
Best friends can remain best friends throughout a book, or they could come to blows. Or, as with many 3-D people, their relationship could experience ups and downs. Don’t hesitate to explore all your options as you introduce an LC’s best friend into your story.
One peculiar best friend is the sidekick. Sometimes a comic foil, this character is often a junior partner to the lead character. The two characters may work at the same tasks, even share the same goals, but the sidekick brings his own distinctly different personality and skills to the mix.
The sidekick will stand out from the main character. He’ll either have an obvious weakness or will underestimate his own strengths. He may think he couldn’t accomplish on his own what he can with his partner. Yet even if he has to be rescued, he often proves himself worthy of being a hero. He is a true support to the main character. Think of Robin (of Batman fame). Think of Xena’s pal Gabrielle and Hercules’s (TV) buddy, Iolaus.
Sidekicks can be used to provide the human or emotional or humorous element that some lead characters are not allowed to experience or share.
The main character could also have other friends, second second bananas. While the LC might spend time with these, they won’t get the page time and importance that the best friend gets. They are necessary to the plot, of course—else why include them?—but they play a less prominent role.
These characters can be used to make the story seem real. They may be used for comic relief or for the specialized skills they possess. They may be introduced in one story because you plan to feature them in a story of their own and you want to whet the reader’s appetite for that adventure.
While you want such characters to seem real and credible, you don’t need to spend as much page time describing them and showing off their personalities. You may also not need to deeply explore the ways they’re related to other characters. Simply stating the relationship may serve the story’s needs.
You don’t want to make them, or any secondary character, seem more important than they are.
The lead character is the star, therefore he gets page time, the bulk of the dialogue, and a full fleshing out. The second banana is given what is needed to make him seem real, a true complement for the story lead. A second second banana doesn’t need as much attention. Readers understand that a character who has ties to the LC doesn’t have to have a full history of his own, at least not one that’s presented in the current story.
Consider your characters in a hierarchy, with protagonist on top. He’s followed by the antagonist, though a best-friend character may get more page time. Since we’re looking at both importance to the story and time on the page, the antagonist, in this scenario, gets placed above other characters. An antagonist often drives the story, so he deserves a spot at the top of the pyramid, close to the protagonist. Major secondary characters come next, followed by characters who play smaller roles. These are in turn followed by walk-ons and then by background characters.
Characters at the bottom of the hierarchy need much less fleshing out than those at the top. We don’t need their back stories and motivations. Knowing their story purpose is often enough for the a scene. Knowing their occupation is sometimes all a reader needs.
Both your protagonist and your antagonist may have a love interest. As the best friend might do, the love interest could prove true ally or betrayer; it’s all in how you write the character. But there’s plenty of room for conflict with a love interest.
A lover could be a major secondary character or a minor one. It simply depends on what you need him or her to do for the story. If his lover is what your LC lives for, then it’s likely she’ll play a large role in the story. And if that’s the case, readers will want to know—need to know—more of her background and what makes her tick. They may want to know what she does when she’s away from the LC. They may want to know who her friends are.
But even a love interest shouldn’t get more attention than the story warrants. Secondary characters should never take over the lead character’s role.
Readers should never have to guess who the main character is.
A love interest could, instead of playing a major part in the story, simply be part of a character’s background. Base such a secondary character on the story’s needs. Do readers need to know much about the love interest? Do they need to see this character in action with the main character? Are simple references to this character sufficient?
Know the thrust, the feel and purpose of your story, and craft secondary characters accordingly. Create characters that you’ll put to work for the story.
A character’s children may feature in a story or get little attention. If you’re using them to provide background, they may well be talked about more than seen. Yet remember that characters can make much more of an impact if they actually move through a scene, acting and speaking.
Give children only as much attention as is necessary for the story, but only introduce them in the first place if doing so adds to that story. That is, don’t merely introduce characters and then forget about them. Put them to work for plot or to reveal something about your main character. If children don’t play a part in the plot, then mentioning them in background information may be sufficient.
You don’t need unused characters cluttering up the story. Use those you introduce; only introduce those characters you truly need.
Characters can also be beset by mother, father, sisters and brothers. Again, these characters can be a true source of conflict. Yet relatives can also prove friendly and comforting. They can be support for the LC or a challenge to what he wants to achieve. They can be his cheerleaders or his detractors. They can play multiple roles at the same time.
Relationships with family can be used to show why a character behaves as he does, or those relationships can be the goad, positive or negative, that set him on his adventures. The family element is a strong one for influencing character goals and motivations.
Family members can play major or minor roles. Think of using them as the source of your lead’s strengths and weaknesses. These characters may have less to do with plot than with showing who your lead character really is and how he got that way. But family members could play a major plot role as well.
Whether your main character works for himself or not, it’s likely he’ll have relationships with authority figures. This may include his boss, a police official, a political leader.
These characters, like all story people, can be a source of help or a source of conflict. Or they can be both in the same story.
The LC’s relationships with authority figures may be a key component of the story or part of the background. A fight with a boss over the boss’s embezzling could be the inciting incident for your thriller. Being put on suspension by his captain might be the catalyst for a detective to take on a freelance case for his aunt, looking into his uncle’s 20-year-old murder.
Authority figures can be mined for their expertise, used by the LC when his own knowledge and experience are lacking. One character (other than James Bond) cannot know everything, cannot be an expert in all fields. Characters need go-to guys to help them navigate their problems.
Writers can, of course, use these same go-to guys to mislead and send astray the lead character. Their agendas will not often be the same as the protagonist’s, and they may have secrets to protect. Keep in mind that every character has his own agenda, whether readers catch sight of it or not.
No matter what their intentions or story purposes are, be careful not to write your secondary characters as stereotypes. Yes, a type can be useful in cutting to the chase, in advancing the story without having to reveal a character’s back story, but don’t only rely on what other writers have created before you.
Don’t dwell too long on minor characters, but at the same time, don’t shortcut through each one, peopling your stories with stock characters recognized by their occupations or word choices or clothing styles. If you’re going to bother putting a character into your story, make him your character, not the creation of someone else.
A private investigator or a cop might have a relationship with an informant, someone who helps him discover what’s going on. Again, the level of the relationship might be strong or might be cursory. The characters might spend a lot of time together or may literally bump in the night, sharing little more than seconds together. Manipulate the relationship to suit the needs of your story.
Informants don’t have to be low-lifes. A business tycoon might make use of informants inside his own company to keep him abreast of goings-on or he could pay informants inside a company he wants to take over. Or a whistleblower might play a role in a story, jump-starting the action or deepening it.
Any character can have professional peers—buddies, coworkers, acquaintances in complementary professions. The size of their story role depends on the need.
A lawyer or accountant or doctor may be a major or minor secondary character. Be sure to give them a story purpose based on their profession. That is, make use of their knowledge and skills. Don’t include a doctor in the story just so your LC can have a doctor friend. Put the doctor’s background and skills to use in multiple ways.
This doesn’t mean you need to overplay his role—if he’s a minor secondary character, keep him minor. But do make use of his peculiar strengths in ways that enhance the story.
Background and Walk-on Characters
Stories, especially novels, need people moving through the background. They provide motion and color and veracity. They’re also needed for walk-on roles—taxi drivers and flight attendants and store clerks and passersby.
You’ll sometimes need an anonymous voice from the crowd or an instigator of a mob. These don’t have to be featured characters and they don’t need to be named. Readers don’t need to know what they had for breakfast or what awaits them at home. They simply fill roles that advance the plot and/or add to the setting.
In this category of character think of delivery guys, a witness in the street, a woman in an elevator. Picture fellow shoppers, a cop working a traffic accident, children on a playground.
Stories need regular folk who live in your story world. Use them to sketch in the era or setting location. Keep them in the background unless they contribute to the plot. And if a character is ultimately integral to plot, realize that she’s no background character and write her accordingly.
One key to writing secondary characters is to give them just enough attention without intimating that they play a larger role than they do.
Don’t name walk-on or background characters. If a background character is a recurring one in a series, you can name him, but keep his activities related to your lead character.
Don’t allow major characters to dwell on walk-on characters, only on their message.
Find ways to combine walk-on characters. You don’t need five pizza delivery guys or three witnesses to be in the right place at the wrong time in order to fill your protagonist in on three different story events. Use existing characters before creating new ones whenever possible.
Don’t overpopulate your stories with incidental characters who steal the spotlight. Keep the background, including characters, in the background.
Sometimes a story features a large cast of near-equal characters. While you probably do have one character who plays the central role, even among a group, you may have to juggle to give all characters equal page time and story importance.
In this case you may look at each member of the group as being a major character. Even with a large cast of major characters, however, you’ll still have secondary characters. Each of the ensemble will have friends and peers and enemies who influence them and thus the story. This is one reason epic stories are so long—the relationships between characters is complex and near limitless in scope and relationships need to be explained and explored.
If you’re writing an epic or a novel with a large cast, keep in mind that no major character comes unencumbered. Because of this, the number of characters rises greatly in an epic and you should plan for this in advance. Know the kinds of characters you’ll need and place them in the story accordingly.
Secondary characters fill not only relationship roles but story roles in fiction. Christopher Vogler’s The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (based in part on Vogler’s take on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces) is a great resource (and an easy read) for character types and for learning how they relate to one another in fiction.
I won’t go into all the roles here, but they include allies and threshold guardians and mentors. Well worth a read, especially as a reminder of the way stories have retained much of the same elements for hundreds (thousands?) of years.
Secondary characters can bring depth and richness and authenticity to fiction. Written poorly, they can also bring confusion and unintended misdirection.
Choose your secondary characters wisely, knowing what you want them to do. Know also their limitations so you don’t ask more of them than they should provide.
Decide how much of them the reader will see, how much influence they’ll have over major characters and story events.
Keep them in their place, always remembering that while every character is the star of his own story, he’s not the star of every story. You may decide to give a character his own adventure, where he’s the hero. If so, you can plant clues about him in the book in which he plays only a minor role. Yet you still don’t want to overwhelm the protagonist of the first story. Allow him his chance to shine by giving him a supporting cast that actually supports.
The Quick and Dirty
Give each secondary character a purpose different from every other character
Give each a personality different from the main character and others
Give each strengths and weaknesses if the role is large enough to support such detail
Give each relationships of their own beyond the main character (protagonist or antagonist) if the character is important enough
Cut out secondary characters who don’t pull their own weight. They should serve the story, both plot and main characters. If they get in the way, cut them out or rewrite.
Don’t give secondary characters more attention than they need; you don’t want readers wondering at the meaning behind their actions if there ultimately is none. That is, don’t promise more for or from a secondary than you’re going to deliver. A character who’s set up to play a major role and then doesn’t is a source of negativity for the reader. If the reader is disappointed Joe Smith didn’t play a larger role—after you set up that larger role—he won’t be satisfied with the story. It’ll leave a nagging dissatisfaction, no matter how strong the story resolution.
Spend time with your secondary characters, getting to know them and planning scenes where they can be of the most benefit to your story.
Put them to work to create the story you want to tell.
Write strong and useful characters. Write some great fiction today.