Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Supporting Cast

cartoon characters

I've been reading a lot of novels lately and noticing that I love some characters, while others I care nothing about. I'm also writing a new book and rethinking ways to make readers know and love my characters. Specifically, I've been thinking about secondary characters, and it occurs to me that there are two major errors writers make with secondary characters: 1) readers either don't know these character well enough, or 2) readers know these characters too well.

Problem One: We Don't Know The Characters Well Enough

Like the lady in the GPS navigation device who speaks only when she wants you to make a turn, some of my secondary characters show up only when I need them to deliver news that will push the story in a new direction. They are more like disembodied voices than flesh and blood people. Readers don't know them, readers don't love them, readers don't even remember they exist until they pipe up with, "Prepare to turn left, now."

One Solution: Find Out What They Want 

We need to fight the urge to write parables. The father and his two sons, the unjust judge and the woman who keeps bugging him, the man who finds the pearl in the field--those people don't have names. The woman who sweeps her house looking for the lost coin could just as easily be a carpenter who searches his shop for an expensive tool he misplaced. Parable characters are interchangeable because parables are meant to deliver a message, not people we think of as friends.
Characters we love don't exist only to give us a message. They have names and hopes and dreams and shortcomings. They're real people and we can relate to them.
We celebrate them in song. And we do this not just for the protagonists, but for the secondary character, too. We sing All Hail King Jesus, but we also sing, Dare to be a Daniel. The hero of the Bible is Jesus Christ and he gets the most songs. But everybody, even secondary characters, are heroes in their own little corners of the story world--in their own subplots. They have a part to play, which can't be played by any other character.
Do you remember this from The Two Towers

Sam: I wonder if we'll ever be put into songs or tales.

Frodo: What?

Sam: I wonder if people will ever say, 'Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring.' And they'll say 'Yes, that's one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn't he, Dad?' 'Yes, my boy, the most famousest of hobbits. And that's saying a lot.'

Frodo: You've left out one of the chief characters - Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam. Frodo wouldn't have got far without Sam.

Sam: Now Mr. Frodo, you shouldn't make fun; I was being serious.

Frodo: So was I.

Sam is real. We know him. He's not smart, but he's wise. He's not flashy, but he's solid as a rock.
If our secondary characters are the heroes of their own stories they'll feel real. If they have their own goals we won't be able to manipulate them and use them every now and again, and then shove them back into their corners to wait quietly until we need them again. 
Of course we don't want to make their stories so important that they overshadow the hero's story. If we overcorrect here, we'll fall into...

Problem Two: We Know Them Too Well

My sidekick characters sometimes like to steal the scene--hog the spotlight.
Have you experienced this? I think I know why it happens to me. My hero usually doubles as narrator. He looks at other characters and tells me what he sees, and since the hero is usually is well-spoken and discerning and witty, he gives me a colorful description of the quirky sidekick.
Once I get that description, I find myself falling in love with the supporting actor. I know him, I understand his quirks, and I think he's funny and sweet, despite his faults.
Meanwhile, no one is telling me about the main character. He doesn't sit around thinking about himself, ticking off his eccentricities. He sees himself as a serious,  honest person, working toward an important goal. He doesn't usually poke fun at himself the way he pokes fun, lovingly, at his friends.

One Solution: Let Them Tell You About the Protagonist

I let two or three secondary characters tell me what they think of the main character. What does he look like, what kind of personality does he have? Does he have any quirks? What are his strengths and weaknesses? What do they love best about him, and what fault rubs them the wrong way?
Early on, my main character protects himself, hiding away his peccadilloes. Once his secrets are out, he loosens up and lets people see him for who he really is. I naturally enjoy writing him, he naturally wants more of the spotlight, and the secondary characters take a step back, to their proper places.

Other solutions? What have you found that works to make your secondary characters come to life, while not allowing them to get too big for the britches and hog the whole stage?

 is the local liaison for SCBWI in Cobb County, Georgia. She has published short works in a number of places and has received an SCBWI Work in Progress grant. She can usually be found blogging about young adult novels at


Ane Mulligan said...

I'm writing a series, so I can introduce characters in one manuscript as secondary, then make them POV characters int he next. That's one way to really get to know them. In my Chapel Lake series, I have a whole Southern town of colorful characters, and some will have a POV in another book. ;o)

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Cool post! Love the idea of having those secondary characters describe/reflect on the main characters. And love Ane's idea of secondary character having their own book down the road. I'm working on that now for one of my hard-to-ignore secondaries from my first book.

sally apokedak said...

Ah, yes, spin-offs with hard-to-ignore secondary characters is a great idea.

And...southern towns just breed colorful characters, don't they? :)

I have a secondary character I love in my WIP, but I can never make him a protagonist. He's too obnoxious. Plus he's not human, and he's really old. Well...Bilbo worked...hmmm

Elaine Stock said...

Sally, a very helpful post. Thanks!

SA Larsenッ said...

Great post! Striking a balance between knowing a character and revealing to much can prove difficult at times. For me, creating a road map of the when, what, and how much to reveal is critical.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Lots to think about, Sally, thanks. I've read some books that have the disappearing secondary characters. Your analogy with Ms. GPS is excellent--very memorable.


Jim H said...

As usual, Sally, you bring up a good subject. In this post, you've touched on one of the toughest balancing acts in fiction. In Tolkein's Ring Trilogy, the quest of Frodo acquires its strength from the supporting cast. Without them, Frodo loses a significant amount of emotional depth. (Shakespeare understood this, too.) In answer to your question " to make your secondary characters come to life...?", I offer this:

When reading, I like to see a writer establish an emotional connection between the primary character(s) and the secondaries. It doesn't have to be complex, but it must touch on at least one emotion. When writing, the challenge is not to let any of those connections become dominant, unless that dominance is what moves the main character(s) forward.

What's tough to avoid is the use of the secondary characters to deliver a detailed mechanical description because the writer thinks the reader needs to know something about the main character(s). Creating that emotional connection is one way to throttle that. Another way is to limit the description. Don't give all the details at once. Just one or two at a time. Let the readers "shop" for them as they read. Give enough detail to excite the imagination, and let the reader do the rest. That's part of the fun of reading: imagination.

Jim H.
Author of Moe - "...woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!" Eccl. 4:10

Anonymous said...

I remember one of my writing teachers once telling us something about secondary characters. She said, if there are times when no matter what you do, you can't stop a secondary character hogging the spotlight, then let them do so and watch what happens. Specifically she'd been trying to write a book for children, and a secondary character called Lolly Leopold kept consuming her interest as the writer. She tried many times to avoid it. But when she finally relented and let Lolly take centre stage, Lolly became the star. So the lesson is, that sometimes as the writer we are writing about the wrong character. If another character keeps putting their hand up, we may need to recalibrate, take a second look. My teacher's book 'Clubs' starring Lolly Leopold as protagonist, went on to win awards and is nearly a classic in New Zealand fiction.
Yvette Carol

sally apokedak said...

Thanks, Jim. The emotional connection is a very good thing. I've never heard anyone say that before. It makes perfect sense. If the main character sees the secondary character as a real person who demands some emotional response, then the reader will see the secondary character as a real person, too. Very good point.

Yvette, listening to the stage-hog is sometimes a good idea, you're right. And I'm glad your teacher had the good sense to listen to Lolly. :)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Excellent post, Sally! I love the idea of having the secondary characters describe the protagonist. I am tucking that away for use! said...

I love having the secondary characters describe the MC/POV narrator. It's a wonderful tip. In fact, I was so excited by it, I pulled out my latest rewrite-in-progress to make an editing note and realized I'd already done a little bit of this...pretty much unconciously (aka by accident). But I think I may need to strengthen those aspects with more intention.

My problem is #2 - I tend to write about "a cast of thousands" who love to steal the spotlight. I love all of my secondary characters and I know far too much about each and every one of them. So I spend loads of time examining what each secondary character adds to the plot and the story arc and all that.