You have an amazing dynamic main character, a hero who can lead your story’s plot. You know this character’s backstory and the main character’s arc is a thing of emotional beauty. But what about your story’s secondary characters?
Secondary characters matter. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. Whether they’re static characters or dynamic characters, you want these minor characters to play a pivotal role in your plot. You want to make it so that if you removed them, the story wouldn’t be the same.
So how do you create secondary characters that your readers will love? We’ll look at five things to do while drafting or revising, to ensure all the supporting roles in your story pull their weight.
What is a secondary character?
A secondary character is a character who shapes the protagonist’s journey in some way. They might be a best friend, sidekick, love interest, or antagonist. While their role in a story is viewed in relation to how they interact with the hero, they can also have subplots which explore their own goals, needs, aspirations, and setbacks.
However, while a secondary character might not get the same amount of page space as your main character, they’re still very important to your story. Secondary characters help to drive plot with their actions, making your main character’s life either easier or harder.
Typically, secondary characters have some sort of relationship with your main character. Your story’s secondary character might be your main character’s spouse or love interest, parent, child, friend, colleague, boss, or rival. However, they’re not going to be a character who only shows up for one or two scenes at max and serves little purpose (this would be a tertiary character, which will get to in just a second).
Famous examples of much-loved secondary characters in literature include:
Ron and Hermione from Harry Potter
Peeta from The Hunger Games
Samwise, Pip, and Merry from The Lord of the Rings
The Cullen family from Twilight
What’s the difference between primary, tertiary, and secondary characters?
In the hierarchy of characters, a tertiary character is one level down from a secondary character, who is one level down from your primary character—your hero.
If all eyes are on the hero, the secondary characters are slightly less in focus, and then the tertiary characters fill out your worldbuilding from the story’s fringe. They still play some sort of role in the story, but they aren’t as central to the plot and they’re not that richly developed.
Sometimes, a tertiary player will just show up once, maybe twice, perform their function, and then leave. Other times, they’ll just be there to flesh out the character’s world. After all, your character likely doesn’t walk through a world with no people in it.
They’ll have coworkers, classmates, and family members. A reader might not need to know everything about these people. Sometimes, a reader doesn’t even need to know their names, but they do need to be there.
An example of tertiary supporting characters in the wizarding world would be Harry’s various classmates such as Dean Thomas, Lavender Brown, Padma Patil, and Parvati Patil.
If these characters do show up a few times throughout the plot to perform a specific, vital function (like delivering a piece of news your character needs to move forward, for example), make them memorable for your reader. Give them an interesting characteristic or appearance, or place them in a specific location or give them a job.
That way, even if your reader doesn’t recall Joe from page 50 by page 150, they might at least recall Joe Who Works at the Post Office and Has a Walrus Mustache.
A word of warning
While you’re naming all your tertiary and secondary characters, try not to fall into the trap of giving everyone similar names.
Steer clear of names that all start with the same letters. That love triangle with Bobby, Betty, and Barry is going to get really confusing, really quickly.
How to write memorable secondary characters
1. Determine your secondary character’s role
Supporting characters exist to fill a role within your story.
Don’t just give your main character a sister because you think they need a sibling. Don’t just introduce your main character’s boss because there’s a workplace scene that takes up a few pages.
Analyze each of your secondary characters and ask yourself: “What purpose does this person serve?”
Minor character roles
There are a few roles that a secondary character might play within a story. Here are just a few. Some of these roles may also fall to tertiary-style characters—we’ll look at those in more detail down below.
Unless you’re writing a story in which the antagonist and protagonist share equal page space, your antagonist will usually be a secondary character.
The antagonist is your protagonist’s equal and opposite opposing force. They’re the person standing in your character’s way, every step of the way.
However, not all stories have characters as their villains. Sometimes, the antagonist is an organization or construct (think Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984).
Other times, the antagonist is even less concrete; maybe a character has cancer or an addiction and that’s what they’re up against over the course of the plot. But when you do have a villain that’s a secondary character, they need to be dynamic and believable.
The love interest
Sometimes the love interest will act as one of two primary characters (as one often sees in romance books), but if not, they’ll be a secondary character, too.
You don’t always need a love interest in your book, but if you do, this secondary character can act as a motivator and/or foil for your protagonist, helping to move the plot or character arc along.
For example, your hero may be spurred to action when their love interest is captured by the villain, or they decide to face their inner demons in order to win their love interest’s favor.
If you’re a fan of the Hero’s Journey method of plotting a story, then you’re already familiar with the guide or mentor character.
This individual acts as—you guessed it—your character’s guide throughout the course of the book, nudging them toward certain actions.
Think Luke Skywalker’s Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda; Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise; or Haymitch in The Hunger Games.
The best friend or confidante
Just like not every plot needs a love interest, not every plot needs a guide or mentor, either. However, in those cases where there’s not a guide or mentor, it can be handy to include a different character that can perform a similar role of rooting for your hero, giving them advice, or helping them out as needed. Think a best friend or a confidante. In Harry Potter, this would be Ron and Hermione.
The character who merely moves the plot along
A few secondary characters, though, merely help move the plot along. Sometimes, they’re rooting for your main character. Sometimes, they don’t have a stance at all. However, if you got rid of them, their absence would be felt.
If we go back to Star Wars and Luke Skywalker, that person would be Han Solo.
These characters make decisions and have their own motives, personality traits, and backgrounds, but it all ends up influencing the main character and their plot in some necessary way.
The foil or roadblock
But what if you take that character who moves the plot along, the one who maybe is or isn’t in favor of the main character, but then you make them adamantly against the protagonist?
That secondary character would then be a foil or roadblock. They’re actively making things harder on your protagonist, but they’re not the true villain. The antagonist is a bigger, badder guy, but this foil or roadblock certainly isn’t helping matters.
In Harry Potter, foils and roadblocks include Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy. While Voldemort is the true villain in the series, Snape and Draco are messing things up for Harry along the way.
The comic relief
Some stories simply have a particular character around to provide a little comic relief. They might be static characters who don’t change at all over the course of the story; the comedic relief character is just around to be funny.
Still, while their first role is to influence the tone of the story, they should do something for the plot as well, just as is the case with every secondary character.
2. Make your secondary characters believable
Once you’ve settled on your secondary character’s role within your plot and how they relate to your protagonist, you need to ensure that your secondary character is actually believable. Don’t just decide that they’re the villain or the romantic interest and that that’s their only reason for existence. Think of these characters as actual people!
Just like your hero has flaws, motives, backgrounds, emotional sore spots, goals, etcetera, so does every secondary character.
Of course, with secondary characters, you don’t need to flesh all this out for your reader, but you should keep it in mind as you determine their actions. Otherwise, you might end up with a secondary character that’s either flat and uninteresting, or conflicting and unbelievable in their actions.
Additionally, when giving your secondary characters their flaws and motives, consider whether they’ll be static, flat characters or dynamic characters. Static characters remain the same over the course of a story, but a dynamic character changes over the plot.
Perhaps your secondary character learns an important lesson that transforms them. Back to the Harry Potter universe, look at Neville Longbottom. Over the course of the series, he discovers his own power and courage, and transforms between books one and seven.
Lastly, one of the biggest things that can make your secondary characters unbelievable is if they’re constantly agreeing with the main character. Remember that your secondary characters do not exist to only serve your protagonist and their plot. They have their own fictional lives to sort and their own fictional goals to go after.
3. Don’t overdo it with the secondary characters
If you really nail creating believable, dynamic, and plot-vital secondary characters, that’s awesome. But how many characters does your story need?
The rule when it comes to supporting character is: don’t overdo it.
What does that mean?
That means that you don’t add too many unnecessary characters into your story. If you have a handful of really well-built secondary characters, then you won’t need a large cast.
In fact, adding too many characters into your story can just water down all the hard work you’ve done, pulling your readers’ attentions in too many directions and distracting from the characters who really shine.
If that’s the kind of feedback you’re getting from your beta readers, consider downgrading some of your secondary characters to tertiary.
4. Keep yourself organized
With all of these various moving parts—Secondary characters! Minor character roles! Backstories! Static and dynamic characters!—things can get pretty overwhelming, pretty fast. You don’t have time to think about whether or not your reader can remember Tertiary Character Joe, because you can’t even remember who Joe was.
One of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer, especially if you’re writing a novel-length work, is to keep your primary and secondary characters as organized as possible.
Whether you use a spreadsheet, notebook, or whatever your favorite method of organization, record each character and their purpose, any defining characteristics or backgrounds, as soon as you write (or plot) them. That way, you can keep all their details in mind and keep things consistent as you write.
But don’t reveal it all!
Do realize, though, that even if you write down all this info about your secondary and supporting characters, from their childhood traumas to their favorite foods to their physical appearance, most of this information will be just for your benefit. The more you know, the better you can craft your plot. However, most of these extraneous details won’t serve the reader.
5. Don’t be afraid to hack, hack, hack away
It can be difficult, but often one of the best things you can do while revising a story is to start deleting.
If you find yourself with too many secondary or supporting characters, honestly analyze which are needed and which can go. In some cases, you can combine multiple secondary characters into one singular character.
How can you combine multiple secondary characters into one?
Maybe you morph your best friend character and your love interest character into one person.
Maybe the best friend character has a dark side and, toward the end of the book, becomes a foil. There are many instances where supporting characters can be combined.
Just back up your prior work first and then see where you can get busy cutting and deleting and, ultimately, tightening your prose for a better reading experience.
Secondary characters deserve just as much love and attention as your protagonist
In many ways, secondary characters are the backbone of your story. Your primary character (and your plot!) desperately needs these secondary characters, whether they’re good, bad, or anywhere in between. With a little bit of planning, organization, and some tight editing, you can ensure you’re creating secondary characters that garner just as much love from readers as your main characters.