Crimes Against Secondary Characters

Truth is, most of you probably don’t have a hard time coming up with protagonists and antagonists. Some random character trait, quirk or predicament gnaws at your tail like a rabid squirrel, until you give in and give them the role. Fleshing them out also gets a lot of attention (ideally) and has you hunched over your notebook for weeks. Protagonists have a good life in this respect.

However, while you’re drafting and fighting off anxiety, relatives and your inner editor, don’t neglect the rest of the cast.

Secondary and filler characters rarely benefit from the proper attention that could promote them from props to people, and that’s a terrible shame. Not to mention a crime punishable by pulling out a fingernail with a fishhook, down there in character-world. Character-plane. The place where made-up people are free to frolic to their hearts’ desires… Chara-ville? Ay, charaverso! Olé!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Secondary characters usually take up supporting roles, either emphasizing various side of the hero, or aiding the villain (un-)willingly in his quest to ruin everything. You drop them into your story wherever it’s convenient, and make them help your protagonist or antagonist and furthen the plot. That’s what they’re here for, right? To support. Right?

Well, secondary characters exist to flesh out the story, but there’s a problem when you do all the work for them. They’re not a bunch of silly masks that you—as the mad genius behind the story—put on whenever you fancy and your spouse ain’t home, to tweak the plot to your delight. Why is that a problem, you ask?

Because your secondary characters don’t know they’re secondary!

As far as they’re concerned, they’re the heroes. They’re the protagonists of their very own stories!

These characters don’t take decisions to put your protagonist in a good light, they take decisions because they have goals of their own. They don’t show up nodding graciously just so your antagonist can explain his plan, and don’t randomly get into trouble only so your hero can come to their rescue. Secondary characters are whole people, with strong arms and backs, and they should work for their cheese like everyone else. Unemployment is a mortal crime in Charaverso. Punishable by transmutation through focused proton beams, or recycling of components, just the same.

Treat your secondary characters like people. Double check their purpose in every scene, to make sure you don’t end up with a bunch of lethargic zombies instead of a fully functional cast. Except, of course, if you’re writing about a zombie rehab. If you find characters sitting around or shadowing your protagonist for no other reason than your desire to have some dialog, write them out. Send them home without a check, or make them bust their asses for you.

Be even more watchful with filler characters. You know, the guys that pop out of the keyboard like whack-a-weasel heads while you’re sitting there innocently plotting your protagonist’s doom. Fillers are transitory and only have a single chance at existence in your story. The least you can do is to make it awesome for them. Give them a chance to shine, a spunky punchline, or an impact of some sort. Don’t just drop them in there to recite a line like a pedestrian filling up ten seconds in a third rate TV movie.

Remember, to all other characters, it’s your spiffy protagonist that’s the passer-by, not them. They’re heroes in their own stories, and you’re just the goon writing the wrong person’s biography.

 

______________________________________________

This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012

40 Replies to “Crimes Against Secondary Characters”

    1. Thanks, Hopeful Romantic. Indeed, shallow characters are nothing but cannon-fodder, and we don’t want our own story to be full with bait instead of fish. 😉

      Like

  1. Great post! Nothing can take you out of the story faster than a sea of cardboard characters. People often forget that the main characters of the story are propped up by the support and contrast of those secondaries. If they’re flimsy, the whole story can pancake!

    Like

    1. Mmmm… pancakes… *Homer Simpson drool*
      Indeed, poor secondary characters will drag even the best protagonist down. 🙂 Thanks, J.W.!

      Like

  2. “Because your secondary characters don’t know they’re secondary!

    As far as they’re concerned, they’re the heroes. They’re the protagonists of their very own stories!”

    Those lines will stick with me when I write.

    –Damyanti, Co-host A to Z Challenge April 2012

    Twitter: @AprilA2Z
    #atozchallenge

    Like

  3. Yes, yes, and absolutely yes! How much richer and more satisfying a book is when the author has taken the time to get to know her characters, and then taken even more time to make sure you get to know them too. And this goes for books in any genre–literary fiction, mystery, sci fi, romance, on and on down the list.

    This is an excellent post. Love your wit and writing style, and I’ll definitely be coming back for more.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Philip! That’s right, characters are what stick to us long after the plot, the twists and the rest of the gimmicks are wiped from our minds. 🙂

      Like

  4. Great read and very helpful too. I don’t think I could just dismiss a secondary character in a book anymore – not after so much thought goes into it. I love to read and I’m ashamed to admit that more than half the time, I don’t stop to think about the thought & creativity that has gone into putting together the characters in a book that actually make it the book that it is.

    Thanks for this post – its insightful to both writers and readers 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks, Dazediva!

      It’s true that as a reader you pay attention to very different things in a book than a writer would, you’re focused more on the story than its building blocks. But that’s not a bad thing. I find that I sometimes can’t enjoy an otherwise good story because of some terrible fault in craft or because of shallow characterization. It requires a bit of effort then to shut up the critic inside.

      Like

  5. This just might be the first blog post I’ve read tackling this subject! Oh how I agree with you: “…your secondary characters don’t know they’re secondary! As far as they’re concerned, they’re the heroes. They’re the protagonists of their very own stories!”

    I LOVE my secondary characters (in my WIP), and I’m willing to let them come forward and round-out for the reader. Even a few who might only appear for a few key scenes get an opportunity to sparkle for a minute or two. My protag can’t exist without “real people” around her.

    Thanks for this post! (PS, found you via the A – Z Blog Challenge/Twitter hashtag.) 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tracy!

      I totally agree with you, the protagonist can’t exist (or be taken seriously) without real people around her. It’s just like in real life, “tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are”—if the supporting cast is weak, the protagonist will appear weak, and, well, kinda silly to hand around losers. 😛

      Wish you a lot of fun with your WIP and the characters! (And the #atozchallenge)

      Like

  6. You made a ton of great points in this post. I especially liked the point that “As far as they’re concerned, they’re the heroes. They’re the protagonists of their very own stories!” That is a great way to think of secondary characters and can be a way for writers to test whether or not the character is really destined to be in the story or if they are just there to pass off some advice or get killed off in some spectacular way.

    Sarah @ The Writer’s Experiment

    Like

    1. Thanks, Sarah! Filler characters are so easy to spot in movies or TV series, you know who’s going to get butchered before they even enter the danger zone. It’s quite similar with books, the cues are just a bit different. 🙂

      Like

  7. I’m writing a book with like 30 characters and it’s really hard to give them their own small segment in the story. I guess that’s what I get for making it too diverse -_-.

    Like

    1. See if you can make any of them work a double shift, and cut someone else loose. 😉 It will make it easier on the reader too. I had to cut out a point-of-view character from mine (and he wasn’t secondary) because it was straining to read. Believe me, it’s worth it.

      Have fun!

      Like

    1. Thanks, Steven! 🙂 I love discovering great secondary characters in a story, it’s like unearthing little colorful gems. They’re so worth the work!

      Like

  8. I’m so sorry I missed you on the #atozchallenge. I thoroughly enjoyed doing an A to Z of my characters’ world there and I learnt a lot more about them, as I have with doing character interviews for this summer (every Thursday!)

    Of course it probably helps that my characters are based on real guinea pigs, but they still have their voices to find, and their role in the world to fulfill!

    Your point about what each is doing in the story is one I came to a conclusion about for my fifth story. I actually have to write their stories in order to know exactly what the main protagonist knows and doesnt know about what’s going on around him. Actually, the five sentence outline for each might be enough 😉

    Thanks for the great tips, Vero!

    Like

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jemima! I’m glad you found the post useful. Working on characters is a lot of fun, and the challenge never gets boring! 🙂

      Like

  9. I like that observation, never heard it quite phrased that way. That “As far as they’re concerned, they’re the heroes.”
    In one of my oldest and most edited stories I’m still trying to get out of the plotting stage and fully onto a rough draft, the protagonist is, in the story verse, the sidekick to the Chosen Hero, and its her story about coming into her own as a Hero to stand alongside the Chosen Hero to defeat the Big Bad. So I’d been playing around with secondary characters being their own protagonists, but this brings it to a clearer light. Thank you!

    Like

    1. I’m glad you found this useful, Nadia! 🙂

      Secondary characters are very important to a story, and not just because they offer contrast or something to bounce cool dialog back to the protagonist. Secondary characters contribute tremendously to the reality of the story in the reader’s mind, and they can only do this if they are three-dimensional. If they are puppets, they only make the reader feel cheated, or at least more reluctant to invest true emotion into the story.

      Thank you for commenting and sharing. Writing a story from the perspective of a side-kick is quite a challenge, I’m sure. Wish you good luck (and boldness) with the plot & story! 🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s