How to Create Secondary Characters for a Novel | NY Book Editors
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How to Develop Fresh Secondary Characters for Your Novel

FEATURED IMAGE New York Book Editors 1 3 2022 How to Develop Fresh Secondary Characters for Your Novel

Secondary characters might not be the star of the show, but without them, the show can't go on. Your protagonist needs someone to interact with and, at times, push back against. Secondary characters move the story forward and even develop the main character. They bring out different elements of the main character, such as their good or bad traits.

Many authors write flat, unoriginal secondary characters when they're trying to move the story forward artificially instead of developing strong characters. It's easy to grab stock characters that we've all seen before and then use them to force certain responses from the main character. But with this type of lazy writing (yeah, I said it), the secondary character never rises above their stock traits.

You’ve met stock secondary characters over and over again.

There's the gentle giant, an intimidating force that's actually good.

There's the girl next door, a wholesome and unassuming character who will eventually win over your heart.

There's the lovable rogue, a rascal who breaks the law or societal rules for their own gain.

And that's just a handful of examples.

Stock characters are familiar, which makes them easy to pull from and insert into narratives. The reader will almost certainly recognize this character right away and be able to identify the role that the secondary character will play in the protagonist's life.

But that's not a good thing.

Stock characters make your story more predictable. And predictability equals boring. Sure, certain genres have unchangeable elements. An example of this is romance. However, even when writing in stricter genres, you still have flexibility in how you shape the characters that populate your story.

You don’t want to use stock characters in your book because you don’t want to spoil the experience for the reader. Because most readers are already familiar with stock characters, they can make immediate assumptions on how the character will act.

What Secondary Characters Do in Stories

It’s important to draw a distinction between stock characters and relationships. The girl next door is a stock character that you can just pull off the shelf and insert into your story by only changing trivial things, such as name, description, and personality. She’s on a path that she can never deviate from. She is always wholesome. She is always destined to be with the protagonist. Yawn.

By contrast, a relationship doesn’t require a specific type of character. The love interest doesn’t have to be a stock character. They can be multi-faceted and have unexpected personalities. This unpredictability will add interest and excitement to your story. So, instead of thinking, What stock character can I use? Think, What do I need in a character to challenge, motivate, or reveal something about the protagonist?

What exactly should secondary characters do in the story? Remember that secondary characters can:

  • Move the story forward

  • Ground the story by adding background

  • Foil the protagonist

  • Inspire the protagonist

  • Help the protagonist

  • Reveal something to the protagonist

  • Reveal something about the protagonist

  • Embody your theme

  • Construct your world

While they do offer richness to your story, secondary characters are never there for decoration alone. They often act as catalytic forces and add mobility to your story.

How to Create Secondary Characters

Types of Secondary Characters

A secondary character is any character that plays a significant role in your protagonist's life. When using this basic definition, a secondary character can be a:

  • Friend

  • Romantic interest

  • Villain

  • Mentor

  • Foil

I can sense that some of you are struggling with the idea that you can have a type of character without it being a stock character. Perhaps, this analogy will help. A type of character is a verb. A stock of character is an adjective. In other words, the stock already has a built-in description of who they are, but a type is what they do. A mentor-type offers wise counsel. A mentor stock is often old and incorrigible. But, in reality, a mentor doesn’t have to be old to offer advice and perspective.

Remember that you don’t need all of these secondary characters in your novel. However, there’s a high chance that you’ll use a few from this list.

The role that they play in the protagonist’s life doesn’t make them trope-y or stereotypical. Think about your real life. In real life, you have friends that don’t fall into stock character territory. But they’re still your friends. They’re not flat or two-dimensional.

What makes the people in our lives dimensional and “alive” is the fact that they don’t just exist in our world. They have lives, destinies, and desires independent of us. We just intersect at different times in our respective lives. And that’s the secret to creating secondary characters that ring true to your reader. Give them a life. No, you don’t have to explore their lives. But you have to write them as if they have their own lives.

Here is the secret to creating vibrant secondary characters:

Give Them a Reason to Be There

Your secondary characters need a reason to be in each scene. If you have random characters running around in the story, they can dilute your storytelling and waste the reader's time and mental energy.

Instead, if you want a secondary character to be in a scene, they must have a direct impact on either the protagonist or the plot. Ask yourself, “How is this character affecting either the plot or the protagonist in this scene?”

If a secondary character is just serving as decoration, edit it out or don't mention them.

Don't Allow Them to Be Too Wise

Secondary characters should not play the role of God to your protagonist. This includes mentors. When you make your secondary characters too wise, you erase their dimensionality and humanness. Humans make mistakes. They’re not always right. They’re not all-knowing. If you make them too wise, you also make them expository agents. They start telling the reader what to think, instead of allowing the reader to decide.

Don't Have Too Many Secondary Characters

Because you’re working with the limited attention span of your readers, you don’t have the luxury to introduce too many characters into your novel. The reader won’t be able to keep up with too many characters and this can lead to confusion and frustration.

One character can do the work of several. Don’t be afraid to combine multiple characters into one. For example, a friend can be a foil. This secondary character can clash with their friend, the protagonist, which allows you to reveal something about the protagonist’s character. The friend can also be a romantic interest. Or the mentor can turn into a villain, which is great for characterization and internal conflict.

Think of ways to combine characters to create the desired result.

How to Create Secondary Characters

What About Tertiary Characters?

Not all of the characters in your novel are primary and secondary. After all, someone has to deliver the mail or teach school or drive the bus in your world.

These characters are known as tertiary characters. Little more than decorations, tertiary characters service your world. The protagonist may interact with them only a few times in the story, but not enough for it to influence them.

Tertiary characters only exist to populate your world. They also mimic real-life situations because we all bump into people who don't make a lasting impact in our lives but still set the scene. You need them, but you don’t need to do as much with them as you would for secondary characters.

Final Thoughts

You don't have to get all of this right in the first draft. It's in the editing process when you can identify the roles that your characters play and then make those roles more deliberate.

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