Thursday, August 18, 2011

Supporting characters, uh, support?

Secondary characters give primary characters life.

When we're writing, it's easy to focus on the main characters. I don't know about the rest of you, but it's usually the main characters who inspire me to write the book in the first place. I get attached to their story and want need to tell it. I could follow the characters around for chapters not caring about anything else.

Except there's, you know, that whole story thing. And story typically involves a few more characters.

The truth is, it's hard to see who the main character is when we've got her by herself. But when you let her interact with other characters, we begin to see the way she changes (or doesn't change) to fit with them. And maybe we know she's going to behave one way with the love interest because she's got the hots for him, but we see more sides of her when there are supporting characters around. Not just the side she wants to present to the love interest.

They give the worldbuilding depth and the story scope. Secondary characters do jobs in the world, like run businesses or teach the main character an invaluable skill. They keep the world from toppling over. It's hard to believe an entire complex society might exist if there are only two or three people in it.

And their stories influence -- and are influenced by -- the plot the main character is dealing with. Secondary characters can get in the way of a car chase, or help out. Their minor crisis at home might escalate and cause them to do something crazy in the main character's path, causing the main character to deal with the fallout from that.

There are lots of opportunities for secondary characters to shine. It's easy to overlook them, especially when we're writing and not quite as in love with them as we are other characters. But take a moment to think about your secondary characters. What can they do today? How can they help or hinder your main character? There's a lot of untapped value there.


Jodi Meadows is the author of INCARNATE, book one of the Newsoul Trilogy. (January 31, 2012 - HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books.)

She lives and writes in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, with her husband, a Kippy*, and an alarming number of ferrets. She is a confessed book addict, and has wanted to be a writer ever since she decided against becoming an astronaut. You can find her on her website and blog.

*A Kippy is a cat.


  1. I *love* my secondary characters. One in particular, I love as much, if not more than my MC. Her personality completely took over and turned her into this person that everyone in the room would want to talk to if she were to actually walk in.

    Something I wasn't expecting was that others would love her as much as I do. Every agent I spoke to when I was querying pointed out the same character as something they loved. It's like the parable about one twig being easily broken, but a bundle being stronger -- never underestimate the people standing behind or beside your MC; they make the story stronger.

  2. I love what you say about supporting characters being able to bring out different sides to your character. So true!

  3. Josin -- Yes! I love it when that happens. Secondary characters are awesome and can take the story completely different places than you ever dreamed it could go. *has a couple like that* *loves them*

    Lenore -- I don't think it was even something I realized until recently. And then it was just...OF COURSE.

  4. Love what you say about secondary characters being great for characterization, worldbuilding, and plot. Before I started actually trying to flesh out one of my story ideas, I totally focused on the MC. But now that I'm in the middle of plotting, I'm finding that secondary characters are super important, not to mention so much fun!

  5. Yes! Same thing happens to me. Once I start revising it's alllll about how the main characters are doing stuff.