How Memorable Is Your Secondary Character?

I’ve been slowly reading The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maass. I’m a fast reader and sometimes miss important facts, so I’ve been taking my time with this one in order to make the most of the book and learn all I can to apply to my writing.

I just finished a chapter about secondary characters and was struck by the fact that I really ignore mine! I have been so focused on the H/H, I have stuck my secondaries into the background, safe and sound.

Here are three types of secondary characters to think about:

1. Special Characters: Who are the people that make an impact on your character’s life? How have they made a difference in your protaganist’s life? What makes these characters special is how they have changed your hero/heroine. What details show this to be true?

2. Ordinary Characters: These are the people in your protaganist’s life that are taken for granted. One way to spice them up is to make them eccentric, make them quirky. While making them unique, you need to make them human too, so give them a conflict they must overcome.

3. Antagonists: To often these can become “cardboard” characters who are entirely evil, which makes them entirely boring. These bad guys need some redeeming qualities. We need to somehow relate to them and even root for them at times. They need be in the forefront and in the hero’s face, not relegated to the background.

According to Maass, secondary characters are just as important to the story as the protagonist. We need to make sure our supporting characters are real, are human, are memorable.

I have to confess my secondaries are in the background. In fact, there aren’t many secondaries in my WIP and I’ll have some major revisions ahead to beef up these quiet characters in my story.

How about you? Do you enjoy writing quirky secondary characters? How much thought do you put into these? What is your favorite type of secondary character to write?

15 responses to “How Memorable Is Your Secondary Character?”

  1. I’m so glad you’re sharing your insights from this book – since I don’t own it and probably won’t get around to reading it this summer.

    I enjoy secondary characters. In fact, sometimes my secondary characters are more rounded and real than my MC’s. One of my critiques from the Genesis contest was that the judges all loved Bernie – a very important secondary character, while Carmen and Ben fell a little flat for them.


  2. Great post, Sherrinda! Are you done with school and getting a breather?! Hope your son’s graduation went well this past weekend!

    I agree that some secondary characters need life. I think we have to figure out which ones are most important to our plot and then flesh those out more. Then the others can be more cardboard because we certainly can’t take the time to make all of them unique and quirky or we may detract from our story.

    And I agree about the antagonist. If we give them a conflicting motivation for what they’re doing, something that’s perhaps equally noble, then the antagonist doesn’t seem so entirely evil.

    Thanks for sharing! Sounds like an excellent book!


  3. Oh Yeah, I love quirky secondaries! LOL But I also like normal ones. I usually try to make them human, but I don’t always give them goals or obstacles.

    Interesting tips. Thanks!


  4. Katie, how interesting about your Genesis critique. Maybe you should give that secondary character his/her own book! Yes, this book is a good one and I am learning alot. (though I am not reading as much of it as I would like to right now). Summer is here, so hoping I will have more time!

    Jody, great point about the secondary characters that help move the plot along. That is so true. Some help and some don’t and to put time in one that really doesn’t matter, well, that is probably just wasteful! 🙂
    I work through Thursday this week, (with no students, I will get tons accomplished!)then I work 1/2 days at summer school. So yes, I am feeling much more relaxed and hopefully can FINISH MY BOOK!!!! lol The graduation was lovely and only 2 hours long! And our reception was sweet. I will post some pics later this week.

    Jessica, hmmm, you know, this will show my ignorance but when I started my WIP, I didn’t even think about goals and obstacles for my secondary characters. I just wrote what I thought was good. lol…the more I learn, the more I realize I know NOTHING! 🙂


  5. My books always include quirky secondary characters–especially family! Who can’t relate to meddling mothers?

    I’ve read a few of D.M.’s other books but haven’t checked out this one. I might have to. Thanks for the tip!


  6. I had an interesting thing happen in my first novel. It almost felt like my secondary character was fighting for the same “attention” or limelight that my main character deserved…I had to tone woman #2 down a bit so woman #1 could still shine.
    ~ Wendy


  7. oh…i had one genesis commentator who said my secondary bordered on being stronger than my heroine! she said it would be better to give my secondary her own book. yikes! and this to an author who hadn’t really thought about her secondaries, either!

    (weird, i just read through katie’s comments and yours back to hers and realized the same thing must have happened to my crit bud!)


  8. This is actually something I’m trying to work on right now. I used my secondary characters to build up my h/h but now I want them to be more so readers connect to them also. I’m struggling with it. Maybe I should read that book to get some more insight.

    Great post- thank you!


  9. Oh, I just started reading my copy. So far so good.

    I love working with secondary characters. They have enormous ability to bring the main characters to life and really reveal who they are. So much layering of main characters can happen with well picked secondary characters to spur on reactions, etc. Can’t wait till I get to that chapter now!


  10. You’ll have to let us know what you think of the rest of the book. I don’t have a book store in my small town, so I can’t check it out unless I buy it. With writing books, I find their either hits or misses, so I always like to look through them before I spend the money. Maybe you can be my eyes. 😉

    Lynnette Labelle


  11. I love secondary characters. There’s nothing minor about them. I always look at it as a challenge to do something different, some unexpected, some memorable with them. And some of my minor characters have ended up being my (and my readers) all-time favorites.


  12. I’m going to have to work on that!


  13. Jill, I think everyone has quirky family members, don't you? I know I am kinda quirky!! 🙂

    Wendy, it sounds like your secondary character needs a book of her own!

    Jeannie, how funny that you and Katie had the same thing happen! I am wondering just how much it happens to writers across the board. Surely it happens alot!

    Joyce, I realized real quick that my poor secondary characters needed some help. I tend to just want to focus on the H/H. The book is good, btw, and has alot…ALOT…of examples from others books so that you can SEE what he is talking about.

    Eileen, you will probably pass me up, since I haven't been able to find the time lately to read much on it. I hope to soon!

    Lynnette, I hope to blog on what I am learning through this book. I was hoping once a week, but we shall see. I am really trying to finish my WIP, so I won't be able to do a whole lots of reading (besides the fiction I read at night before I go to sleep!)

    K.M., it sounds like you must be doing it right! Maybe you could give me some pointers! 😉

    Brittany, girl, I am with you! I need sooo much work in this area! But, once baby step at a time, I say.


  14. I love secondary characters! I almost always fall in love with them and have to fight to keep them from taking over the story! 🙂

    You can do so much with secondary’s that you can’t do with your H/H. Because they aren’t around so much you can make them annoying, eccentric, egotistical, or outlandish.

    Since I’ve mostly written historicals, so far, I’ve found that I play a lot with the speech patterns of my secondary’s too.


  15. Lynnette, what a great idea with the speech patterns for your secondary characters! I hadn’t thought of that, but looking back at my WIP, I have done the same thing!!! I’m looking forward to yours coming out…the cover you posted is beautiful!


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