Wednesday, October 15, 2014

C. Hope Clark, "Secondary Characters Have a Primary Role"

My favorite characters are the secondary ones, often considered the sidekicks. When I wrote the first chapter in my first mystery, my focus honed in on the good guy and the bad guy. Everyone else was dispensable, flexible, even optional, but wow, over the years I’ve come to my senses. Secondary characters make a book. Without them, all you have is the good guy and the bad guy, and gracious, how bland is that?

Imagine the family on Christmas Day, all gathered around the tree, or maybe the dinner table. The patriarch is evident, as is the matriarch. The clown and the wallflower. The good seed, and the bad. Young, old, single, married, recently divorced. Tall, short, obese and painfully thin. The well-dressed, the tacky, and the blah. Don’t forget the dog under the table and the baby feeding him.

Who is the main character?

Frankly, any one could be the protagonist. Anyone could be the antagonist. So what does that make the other characters? Secondary.

Let’s make the matriarch the main character in this emotionally intense setting. She’s responsible for the feast, and keeping order in the kitchen, decorating the table, and attempting to preserve peace amongst the family members. She has a secret. One of the others knows the secret. All she wants is to get through this day without the secret getting out.

Imagine how boring this story would be if there were no secondary characters. No matter how big and profound, intelligent and logical, or even tender and empathetic you make the matriarch, she’s nothing without the actions of the secondary players around her. And the more extreme you make these players, the more you develop her. Why? Because she’s nothing in a room by herself, or worse, in a room full of faceless, emotionless people.

Ideas on making the most of your secondary characters:

  1. Give them characteristics your protagonist/antagonist doesn’t have.
  2. Make them throw a monkey wrench into a scene.
  3. Give them behavioral quirks.
  4. Make them interfere into your protagonist’s/antagonist’s business.
  5. Paint them colorful, even over the top.
  6. Make them the conduit between important parts of the story.
  7. Insert them to screw up when the protagonist/antagonist thinks she’s gaining ground.
  8. Endow them with talents the protagonist/antagonist needs.
  9. Let them provide comic relief.
  10. Allow them to be politically incorrect (something your protagonist can’t often do).
  11. Make their actions or inactions serve to underline your protagonist’s/antagonist’s choices.
  12. Have their personality clash with your main character, pushing your main character to raise his performance.
  13. Use them to tap a main character’s conscience.
  14. Let them emphasize the main character’s problems instead of the main player having to shout about it.

Your protagonist and antagonist feed off the secondaries. You have less conflict and less emotion when the story is totally in the hands of your two main characters, instead of strewn across the backs of an assortment of others, giving the reader a more complicated tale. In essence, secondaries make the story louder, deeper, funnier, more intense, more layered and exciting. They’re a great tool to help you mold your plot, and embellish your main players.

Some argue that the secondary players cannot have characteristics that outshine the protagonist. That’s true, assuming you’re giving the secondary equal stage time. There’s nothing wrong with your secondary being eccentric, brilliant, or flashy as long as he’s not appearing so much he detracts. You want such flavor in your writing, but like in a good Italian dish, the garlic cannot overpower the taste. But stop and imagine such a dish without it.

BIO: C. Hope Clark's newest mystery release is Murderon Edisto, the first in The Edisto Island Mysteries. She is also known for the award-winning Carolina Slade Mysteries, and for her work as editor of, chosen by Writer’s Digest for its 101 Best Websites for Writers for the past 14 years. /

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  1. Wonderful advice, Hope. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I enjoyed that piece and glad you did as well.

  2. Always something to keep in mind. :)

    1. They are immensely fun to write for me.

  3. I love secondary characters. I love reading them and writing them. In many ways, you can have more fun with them than you can with the hero or villain because they have more play and flexibility (in some ways) than the main characters.

    Excellent article, Hope, and I love your list of suggestions on how to use your secondary characters - may have to pinch that. ;)


    1. You CAN have more fun with them. I love it when I am faced with a new one. It's like entering a candy store.