How to Craft Spectacular Secondary Characters
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Are your story’s supporting characters receiving enough attention?
As storytellers, we often work diligently to bring our protagonists to life, taking pains to shape and mold them into characters that feel as real as the living, breathing people around us. Secondary characters, however, don’t always receive that same treatment.
It’s easy to skimp on the characterization of characters who aren’t always in the limelight, but doing so would be a mistake. If we want to immerse readers in a world that feels as rich and compelling as our own, our supporting casts deserve just as much attention as our stories' stars. Today, let’s talk about how to give it to them!
Do your secondary characters serve a purpose?
Like every element in our stories, the characters in our supporting casts must serve a purpose. If they don’t supplement the story in some way, they’ll weigh it down, casting a pall on what otherwise could have been a truly fantastic book.
Fortunately, there are many ways supporting characters can serve powerful purposes within the frameworks of our stories. Just take a look at these examples:
They can advance the plot in ways the protagonist cannot.
They can create conflict that stymies the protagonist in their journey.
They can reveal or highlight elements of the protagonist’s characterization, often by serving as a foil.
Their words, actions, or backstory can deepen the discussion of a theme.
They can motivate or otherwise aid the protagonist or antagonist.
They can further reveal elements of the story's worldbuilding.
See how secondary characters can be so much more than a tool at the protagonist’s disposal, the prized love interest they win as a reward for fulfilling their destiny, or the comic relief who lightens up the mood?
By fulfilling one or more the purposes we outlined above, our supporting characters can enrich our stories in ways that further captivate readers rather than pulling them out of the narrative with characterizations that fall flat.
How to develop secondary characters fully…
Crafting spectacular secondary characters can be tough when they don’t receive nearly as much “screen-time” as their primary character counterparts, but that doesn’t mean we should skimp out on their characterizations.
Secondary characters deserve to stand on their own two feet as characters with rich lives and complex inner worlds, just as any protagonist should. But how much do we need to develop our secondary characters before writing? And how can we showcase their complexities if they don’t spend much time on the page?
Here are my top tips to get you started, writer:
1. Develop secondary characters fully.
It’s not always necessary to craft supporting characters in as much detail as you would your primary characters. However, I do recommend developing all the same elements for those characters as you would your protagonist: personality, backstory, relationships, worldview, unique voice, and so on.
As with anything you develop, it’s unlikely that every last scrap of information will wind up on the page. However, it’s always better to know more about your characters than is necessary than to skimp out on their characterization.
2. Take advantage of tropes.
You know you’ve developed a character well when readers invest in their lives, buying into the believability of their actions and motivations. Any good investment, however, involves trust — and trust often takes time to build.
When secondary characters don’t receive much time on the page, encouraging readers to invest in their lives can be tough. Fortunately, there’s an easy trick you can employ to remedy this situation: craft secondary characters that put fresh and unexpected twists on classic character tropes.
By taking stock characters — the jock, the medieval princess, the city lawyer, the rogue, etc. — and putting a fresh spin on their typical persona, you can take advantage of readers’ preconceptions and make quick work of crafting characters that feel just as complex as any star of the show.
Need an example or two? Perhaps the popular high school jock only joined the team in hopes of earning a college scholarship, or maybe the high-powered city lawyer works day and night to avoid confronting the emotional consequences of past trauma. The options are endless!
3. Make them memorable.
Developing secondary characters fully and making good use of readers’ preconceptions are both great ways to bring those characters to life. But how can you keep secondary characters from getting lost in the crowd?
Here are a few quick tips for making characters memorable when you’re juggling a large cast:
#1: Give them an alliterative quirk.
This is a tip I picked up from a recent episode of Writing Excuses with Brandon Sanderson. To help readers distinguish between two or more secondary characters, make clever use of alliteration. Perhaps Marcus has a mustache, for example, or Corey is a chiropractor.
Though you don’t want to make constant mention of this alliterative quirk, giving it a small nod when the character comes into scene can help trigger readers’ recognition.
#2: Call out pop culture.
Certain names carry heavy pop culture weight. For example, a character named Jan is likely to call to mind Jan Brady, while a character named Norman may make readers recall Norman Bates from Psycho.
As with tropes, use these pop culture connotations to your advantage when working to distinguish characters. This trick can be especially helpful when you reference characters from within your own genre, as the reference will likely have a greater impact on your ideal reader.
#3: Less is more.
Some stories can’t help but have a large cast of characters. But at the end of the day, the fewer characters your story includes, the easier it will be for readers to remember who they are.
Take a good hard look at your cast of secondary characters. Do any serve similar purposes or not enough purpose? How can you combine two or more characters to forge a stronger, better-developed cast?
#4: Make them unique.
This may be a simple tip, but don’t forget to craft secondary characters that are unique individuals. Work to define their voices and vary their personality traits and backstories. Try to avoid giving them names that are too similar, as well. Pairings like Veronica and Victoria, Matt and Pat, and Joe and Joy may all confuse readers.
The Many Types of Supporting Characters
Not all supporting characters are created equal. Some characters will appear in your story much more frequently than others, and all should serve various purposes within the realm of your story.
If some of your supporting characters serve specific purposes, however, they may fall into a particular role, serving as a villain mentor, sidekick, or love interest. Though not all secondary characters need to fall into one of these roles, there are a few additional tips and tricks that can help you craft each of these characters with ease.
Ready to break them down? We’re diving in deep over the next few weeks, writers, so keep an eye out for links to upcoming articles below. I’ll see you soon!