Our Main Characters get all the glory and all the love and not just in the book. When we discuss our stories, we usually talk about the MCs. When we’re doing dishes or standing in line, we think mostly about what happens next to our MC. When we share writing tips and talk about character development, we tend to focus on how to make our MCs more real.
Our MCs can include the hero/heroine and, possibly, their love interest, as well as the antagonist. But what about the rest of the cast? Our MCs have friends, neighbors, parents, children, etc., that may or may not have roles in the story, and those who do need to be just as three-dimensional as our MCs.
These characters don’t just give your MC someone to talk to while on the big adventure or someone to help her fight off the bad guy. A character’s sole purpose in the book shouldn’t just be to deliver a vital piece of information – if that’s the only reason that character is there, find someone else who can do it. Just like every scene, paragraph and word, every character should serve more than one purpose. The more purposes a character has, the more memorable he becomes.
The best secondary characters have their own motivations and the best motivations somehow conflict with the MC’s. Maybe they both have the same goal, but arguing about how they achieve it creates tension. Even better, maybe they agree on the same plan, but each hopes for a different outcome, possibly even an opposite outcome.
“Secondary characters can serve to amplify what is going on, of course, but they are more useful still when they disagree or produce friction with your main character or, even better, add unforeseen complications to the main problem.” – Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
In Fellowship of the Ring, the fellowship’s main problem is to destroy the ring, but each member brings his own complication to achieving that goal. They each have different perspectives and motivations they bring to the quest. And they each serve multiple purposes throughout the series (even those who die early on!).
“Most interesting of all are secondary characters that have their own trajectory and outcomes, meaning subplots.” – Maass He adds later about the importance of letting readers see the different sides of these characters, their complex motives and how they can surprise us.
The cast of Harry Potter is a gigantic one, but nearly every character serves multiple purposes, perhaps not in the same book but throughout the series. We also get subplots about Hermione, Ron, Luna and even Draco and Snape that add depth to these characters and the overall story. Would the story have been the same if Draco was always the one-dimensional bully? How did our thoughts and feelings about Dumbledore evolve after learning of his youthful aspirations? We probably still love – or hate – the character, but we see them in a different light and can appreciate their complexities, just like people in real-life.
Our MCs drive the story and as writers, we must project them as complex, real and relatable. But they aren’t the only ones. Our secondaries might not play as large of a role, but they need just as much development as the MC. The best way to round out our secondaries? Know them nearly as well as we know the MC – at least as well as we know our best friends.
Need help getting to know your characters? I’m happy to share my character sketch worksheet that I’ve compiled using tips from Maass, Building Believable Characters and various tips I’ve garnered online. It’s really detailed and you don’t need to do the whole thing for every character, but it’s especially helpful when you feel like you really don’t understand a character or they seem to be feeling flat. Drop me an email at kristie (at) kristiecook (dot) com and I’ll send it to you.
How much love do you show your little guys? What’s the biggest struggle you have with creating fully rounded sidekicks and secondaries? What other examples of books with great seconds can you think of? How did the author round out all those characters?