Secondary Characters

I love creating characters. I love love love creating characters. More than anything, character creation is by far my absolute favorite part of the writing process–and no character is more fun for me than The Secondary Character. (or Secondaries, what I call them for short)

Protagonists (and usually antagonists) get plenty of attention—but sometimes I feel like Secondaries are left by the wayside, and slotted in whenever convenient. Certainly these types of characters are necessary, of course, and I do it all the time myself—you’ve got the walk-ons, the cameo guard or pedestrian, to fill in the gaps of your cast. (I actually don’t really consider these types of characters Secondaries at all….they’re just Extras. Tertiaries, if you will. 🙂 ) But I personally think that having a good handful of deeply developed, three-dimensional Secondaries will not only make a story richer, but will flesh out both the main characters and the story’s world. They’re a fantastic way to add exposition to your story without throwing in an info-dump.

When it comes to Secondaries, less is more. Back when I first started writing Legend, Day (my main boy protagonist) had two friends who were essentially his sidekicks. One was a young girl orphan he “adopts” in the story, while the other was a boy who was Day’s best friend, someone who wandered the streets of dystopian Los Angeles with him. The two could have been fine if they both stayed in the story, but to me, it felt like I had two 2-dimensional Secondaries when I really could have just one 3-dimensional Secondary. So I combined them into one character. Instantly, I had a more complex Secondary who had her own backstory, inner conflicts, and complicated relationship with my main character. Look in your story and pick out your own Secondaries that you think you can combine and/or flesh out. Do you have 50 Secondaries that would be better as 12 well-developed Secondaries?

Make as long of a profile sheet for your important Secondaries as you do for your main character. Each of them should also be a real person, even if not all of their info makes it into the book—they should have backgrounds, families, prejudices, strengths and weaknesses, and motivational arcs for why they do what they do. Secondaries often have personality traits that are a little more exaggerated than the protagonist’s (here’s where those tropes come in—the Wise Old Man, the Mischievous Thief, etc). But always remember to ask: why is this character a mischievous thief? Why is this character short-tempered, or angsty, or funny? Did s/he have funny parents? Were his/her parents murdered? Was s/he once not like this, and some circumstance changed him/her? Did the thief grow up in a traveling circus? Was the thief raised by thieves, or did s/he become one out of desperation? Does the thief have doubts about the morality of his/her lifestyle? Knowing the answers to these questions not only rounds out your Secondaries, but they also give you an AMAZING chance to incorporate more world building into your story. What happened in the past life of a Secondary may be some cool culture/tradition of your world that you can share with the reader in an active scene, rather than in a block of boring exposition.

Also, ask how these Secondaries connect to your protagonist(s). How can you use your Secondaries to flesh out your main character? Do your protagonist’s motivations hinge on a Secondary? How does a Secondary shift your protagonist’s character arc and his/her decision-making throughout the story? How does a Secondary’s decisions change your protagonist’s?

Does your Secondary bring out the best/worst in your protagonist? What would happen if your Secondary betrayed your protagonist? Why would your Secondary do that? Do they force traits out of your main character that weren’t there before? Is your Secondary not really connected to your protagonist at all? Why not?

Lastly, study your favorite Secondaries from other stories. Why do you like them so much? What about that character makes them stick, and how can you do the same for your story? Who is your Boba Fett, Snape, or Finnick? Here are some recommendations from me of stories with amazing Secondaries that should not only be read, but analyzed:

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: This may be one of the greatest cartoon series of all time. Why? The characters, particularly the Secondaries. If you haven’t watched it, you need to—it is a lesson in fine storytelling (and fine worldbuilding, but that’s a whole other topic). Perhaps the best Secondary is a character named Zuko, a young, disgraced prince out to capture our hero (Aang, the Avatar) in order to reclaim his honor and win back his father’s love. See? He already sounds as complicated as a protagonist! His personality, backstory, motivations, and inner conflicts are masterfully done. The rest of Avatar‘s cast is similarly complex, and almost each one experiences some sort of character arc throughout the show. (Don’t you dare watch the movie version of this show, by the way. That thing shouldn’t exist.)
  • Harry Potter: Well, duh. Harry Potter has one of the best sets of Secondaries I’ve ever seen—you could write an entire spin-off series about so many of Rowling’s Secondaries. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a separate book all about Snape, or a book about Dumbledore in his youth? When your Secondaries could be main characters in their own right, I think you have a winner.
  • Firefly: So. Many. Great. Secondaries. In fact, most of the show is dominated by Secondaries, and almost all of them are great. We have Kaylee, the sweet and brainy engine mechanic who also loves pretty dresses; Shepherd, the priest with a mysterious past; Zoe, the tough-as-nails soldier who fought alongside protagonist Captain Mal and whose closeness to him causes tensions with her husband; Inara, the high-class courtesan with her own backstory (that we unfortunately never get to explore in depth…why did this show end so suddenly? ;__; ); Saffron, the brilliant, clever, and complex con artist….the list goes on.

So there you have it! Make with the Secondaries. Good ones are immortalized and become their own forces of nature. And with that, I leave you with: Who are your favorite Secondaries?


24 Responses to Secondary Characters

  1. Julie Mar 30 2012 at 6:34 am #

    LOVE this post, Marie! I found it fascinating that Day originally had two best friends that you combined into one! 🙂

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      Thanks Julie! <3 Haha, yeah–I now look back and also find it weird that he had two sidekicks. 🙂

  2. Chele Mar 30 2012 at 7:40 am #

    Ahaha, I’m trying to picture Day with two best friends and it just won’t happen, my mind can’t even begin to picture Tess as two separate people! I definitely agree that a well-written secondary character adds to a story – all my favourite books have such epic Secondaries that they may as well have been Mains 😉

    Great post, Marie! (Also, major MAJOR props for bringing Avatar. Zuko is BOSS <3)

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      Zuko IS boss!!! And thank you!

  3. Angelica Mar 30 2012 at 8:12 am #

    I love this post, and it’s great advice too. My favourite Secondaries would have to be Prince/King Jonathan and the Thief King George from Tamora Pierce’s “Alanna” quartet. Both men play such an important part in Alanna’s life and are such well defined characters as well that you can’t help but love them both.

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 2:19 pm #

      I actually haven’t read Tamora Pierce’s quartet yet, although it’s been rec’d to me by quite a few people. It’s definitely on my TBR list!

  4. Vanessa Di Gregorio Mar 30 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Marie, I absolutely LOVED this post! I think Secondary characters are so important – and yes, it’s always better to have less, but stronger secondary characters than it is to have a whole bunch of undeveloped ones.

    I’m SO glad you mentioned Avatar (and Zuko!) – I’m TOTALLY in the middle of an Avatar: The Last Airbender marathon 😀 And YES, Harry Potter and Firefly (I’m still upset they cancelled that) both have such great secondaries. I also want to agree with Angelica above – George Cooper and Prince Jonathan were such fantastic secondary characters in the ALANNA quartet.

    Again – GREAT post! 🙂

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 2:20 pm #

      Thanks V! omg, I love having TLA marathons….I had one a couple of weeks ago, in anticipation of the first Korra episodes. So. Good. And I know! (re: Firefly) There is no justice in the world!

      • Vanessa Di Gregorio Apr 2 2012 at 2:31 pm #

        I still haven’t watched any episodes of Korra (I know! FOR SHAME!), but I’m hoping to get on that in the next couple of weeks!

  5. Erin Bowman Mar 30 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Oh, Marie, this post is just fantastic. I completely agree on all accounts and must confess that Secondaries are sometimes my favorite characters. I’m 100% with you regarding Firefly. That show is practically all Secondaries. (Heart Kaylee. Oh, and Jayne!)

    So interesting to know that Tess was originally just one of two characters in Day’s life. I loved how she was both the orphan he “adopted” and a best friend in the finished piece, so I’d say you made the perfect decision to combine those two characters!

    • evan roskos Mar 30 2012 at 11:12 am #

      Jayne is the best mostly because of Adam Baldwin. Damn if that’s not one of the most perfect casting jobs ever done.

      • Erin Bowman Mar 30 2012 at 12:23 pm #

        Haha! Right? God, I loved him/that character. So perfect.

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 2:21 pm #

      Aw thanks Erin! 🙂 I can’t believe I forgot to mention Jayne too. AGH SO GOOD. I esp loved him in Jaynestown and in Ariel (I think that’s the right one).

  6. evan roskos Mar 30 2012 at 11:09 am #

    Excellent post that sums up some great advice normally scattered about in the world.

    very good point about Snape — almost the best example of a complex character regardless of role. he’s antagonistic, but not the antagonist. He’s a hero but not the protagonist. His backstory is emotionally effective but not clear-cut. of course, getting that out would not happen well in one book, thus it’s the result of an entire series of information that builds him to a GREAT secondary.

    Firefly: oh, Firefly. Glad you mentioned it. That’s an ensemble cast of characters made real by the actors and writing. Damn Fox for canceling it!

    Nerd-alert: I’d argue Boba Fett is not a secondary until the new trilogy.

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 2:22 pm #

      So true about Snape! I couldn’t make up my mind about which side he was on until almost the end. Amazing. <3

  7. Kat Zhang Mar 30 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Fantastic post, Marie! 😀

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 2:23 pm #

      Thanks Kat!

  8. Zoe Mar 31 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    Awesome post!! I definitely agree with how Firefly is just overflowing with awesome Secondaries. Whenever I’m talking about the show, I always find myself saying “My favorite is Jayne… But I also love Walsh… And Kaylee’s freaking awesome too… Plus Zoe is just plain badass…”

    I always find it a tough decision to combine/delete characters, so go you for being able to do it with your MS! On my first project, I realized a quarter of the way through that one of my Secondaries had a really cool back story but there was just no way for him to fit into the story, since he was significantly older, from an entirely different type of culture, and wouldn’t be able to relate to my protagonist and other Secondaries.

    Also, fun fact, there was mini commercial-trailer thing for LEGEND when I went to go see the Hunger Games movie last night 🙂

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 2:30 pm #

      oh HOORAY, thanks Zoe! I didn’t realize the ad was still playing! 🙂

      I frequently have a tough time with combining characters too, especially when I like a character that I know isn’t working. So I def feel your pain!

  9. Sooz Apr 1 2012 at 8:43 am #

    Oh, what a great post!! I *definitely* had too many secondary characters in my original version of SS&D. There was a fourth (totally unnecessary) Spirit-Hunter. There were more upper class people for Eleanor to meet only once who added nothing to the story. And there was even an additional person, crime family bothering Daniel (instead of You Know Who’s family of the big You Know Which name). Then I read some advice really similar to this, and it all HIT! The fewer secondaries, the more powerful they can all be. And, the more connections you can weave between them all! So, rather than have a rich suitor AND someone from Daniel’s past, why not combine the two? Rather than have a fourth Spirit-Hunter who’s ALSO the muscle of the group, why not make Jie *super* tough?

    Anyway, I’m rambling, and it was all to say: EXCELLENT POST. This is all so, so, SO true. I appreciate tight stories with tight casts of characters. And I know for a fact you did an excellent job with it in LEGEND. 😉

    Also: ten BILLION bonus points for including AVATAR *and* FIREFLY in one post. My fave secondary character for AVATAR is definitely Zuko, followed closely by Toph. Okay…and Sokka. Oh, and Azula. CRAP, THEY’RE ALL SO GOOD. Same for FIREFLY–I was going to say my fave was Wash, but then I thought of Jayne. And then Simon…

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 2:57 pm #

      LOL I can never stop thinking of Secondaries I love from those shows, either!

      And omgomg, these insights into your earlier secondary characters from SS&D is soooo fascinating! I had no idea rich suitor+someone from Daniel’s past didn’t used to be one person! And Jie! Agh, too cool. And both of those final characters TOTALLY work! 🙂

  10. Rowenna Apr 1 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    I confess–I may like creating secondaries more than I like main characters! I think it’s because they’re allowed to be just a little more out there, a little bit bigger or stranger or more mysterious, without getting obnoxious. A secondary can steal the show for a few seconds and then leave the action and the interest back in the MC’s court–fewer responsibilities for them. Well, fewer than they realize, I suppose! Totally agreed about world-building–they can carry so much information in just their backstories, the way they relate to other characters, even their manner of speech or choice of words. In short…I think they’re awesomely fun. 🙂 Great post!

    • Marie Lu Apr 2 2012 at 3:46 pm #

      Yes, I also love that you get a little more freedom to exaggerate with Secondaries! They’re so much fun. 🙂 And thanks, glad you liked the post!

  11. Helen Apr 21 2016 at 6:41 pm #

    I love love love that you gave us such amazing advice! In a book, one thing that I will almost ALWAYS look for is three-dimension, REAL supporting characters! Character arcs are always important, and while the MC’s inner struggles are vital to the plot, I daresay that the supporting characters’ motivations and decisions are even MORE. They make or break the plot! I find this totally fascinating (also omg. Tess was once 2 characters?) that you went so into depth about how you have to create a super thorough character sheet for secondary characters too!
    (also Avatar: The Last Airbender was an amazingly crafted show that will never leave my heart. URGH I SPENT SO MANY WEEKENDS BINGE-WATCHING AND I’M NOT EVEN SORRY! XD)

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