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Old boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, family members, bosses, neighbors, henchmen, servants…all these are often secondary characters. But what makes them “secondary” as opposed to “main” characters? In a word: depth. While we want our secondary characters to be realistic for the reader, secondary characters are often less fleshed out because they are filling a small niche. Their role is usually singular, and their whole character development hinges on that particular story element.
Secondary Characters

Secondary characters should never been too numerous, because it’s quite easy to have them distract from the main theme of the story. There are tertiary characters and so forth, but they are cameos and walk-on roles that add a soupçon of realism without muddying the waters. Secondary characters, however, are integral to the plot in some way. An evil-doer almost never exists without a person of hench as his/her right-hand helper. In the same way, it’s rare for a protagonist to have no friends whatsoever.

In a naughty story, secondary characters can give the protagonist essential experiences that lead her (or him) to her current level of sensuality. That could be an inept ex-boyfriend who never got past kisses but is still hanging on, or it could be a sultry, siren of an ex-girlfriend who has been happy to take the hero to places he never thought he’d go and thus has made him a dynamo when he hops in the sack with the heroine. These characters can also provide conflict. A roommate can be a mischief instigator, encouraging the heroine to go further or faster sexually than she otherwise would, for instance. Imagine my book, Under Wraps, without an Amina or Hakki to give Glee inspiration. Imagine Gone With the Wind, without an Ashley to provoke Scarlett. They’re integral, but the story isn’t about them.

A secondary character needs motivation, just like a main character, but the character profile the writer creates doesn’t have to be as in-depth as for a main character. Physical description, motivation, role and key developmental milestones (sometimes a sketchy story arch) are all that’s really necessary. Your book is about the main characters, and the secondary ones, while not disposable, are not the focus of the work. If you’re a pantser, don’t let them get away from you.

Make your secondary characters real by motivating them, provide them purpose by giving them a useful role, and, while you’re at it, make them interesting enough to inspire another book! If you do these things, you’ll have created a character that becomes integral to the story while not hogging the limelight. Use your secondary characters to enrich your story, but remember to make them supporting roles.

6 Comments

  1. this is a great sharing. definitely for the ol’ writers’ tool box. very succinct as well.

  2. Excellent article, Trish. I tend to take secondary characters very seriously for just the reason you suggest–they can be the hero/heroine in another book. Write them carefully, though, because once you’ve set their character you can’t go back and change it when it comes time to write that book. 🙂

  3. great article – sometimes a writer can get caught up in the secondary characters – never happens to me though – cough cough cough.

  4. Great comments, Trish. I find that good secondary characters sometimes require followup books of their own, so write them carefully. Mine tend to want to take over the main characters if I’m not careful.

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