Secondary characters are characters who are not considered crucial for the main plot line but contribute to the plot or subplots within a story. How many novels have you read that only have a hero and heroine? Unless the two are on a deserted island, there are usually a few more inhabitants wandering around, providing your main characters with people to strategize with, vent to, or reveal past baggage and motivation to. It is often more interesting for the heroine to talk with a friend and deal with their reactions than for her to just think something while staring in a mirror.
Our stories need secondary characters, or at least that’s what they think. Remember – to a secondary character, the story is all about them, not the hero and heroine. They want to be interesting or funny or evil or special. They must possess quirks and hobbies and dislikes to become real.
Right now I’m incorporating my editor’s comments on my latest manuscript. One of my secondary characters is fading into the background too much and is in jeopardy of being cut from the story. Ahh! He can’t be cut! He’s the hero of the third book so he needs to be introduced in this book and he needs to be much more interesting. I have to dig into his background and motivations to create a three-dimensional person.
So where do we find inspiration for secondary characters? They are simply everywhere! Neighbors, family members, arch enemies from high school – fabulous secondary characters surround us. I have a neighbor who irons every single piece of clothing her family wears, even underwear. Her kids can’t run in the house at all because they could get hurt and her house is beyond spotless. What cool details. She could easily be a great secondary character with a need to control her surroundings. Hmmm…she could do all sorts of things to interfere with the primary characters while thinking that she is just helping them out.
I dated a guy in college who owned a red sports car. I thought for certain he would drive fast, but he always drove 5-10 mph under the speed limit. Made me crazy! What was his motivation? Had he been in a crash as a child? Did he just get the hot car to attract girls since he was insecure? He wasn’t interesting enough to be a hero, but he’d make a great secondary character.
By using real life characters in your books you avoid the trap of writing clichés. The bitchy cheerleader, the nerdy bookworm, and the crazy cat lady shouldn’t show up unless they aren’t at all what they seem to be.
So as you go about writing, don’t just throw in a two-dimensional neighbor next door for your heroine to vent to or a bland best friend to give your hero a ride. Give them substance, quirks, motivation. Because if you ask them, they are the ones that make the story shine. And I have to agree with them. : )
(I wrote this blog post originally for the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood blog in September 2013)