A common mistake I see in client manuscripts is a cast of secondary characters that simply exist to help or to outright block the protagonist. They’re either ready, willing, and able to drop everything to help that protagonist reach their own goal. Or they’re a character who is out to make the protagonist’s life hard for no logical reason.
Let’s face it. That’s not how real life works, as everyone has wants and needs of their own. Fictional secondary characters are no different. Their relationship with your protagonist should work like sandpaper, revealing internal growth your protagonist needs, or revealing their commitment to reaching their external goal. If we craft our secondary characters well, they should create a tug-of-war inside the reader. Readers should empathize with each secondary character’s inner motivation and struggle with who to primarily cheer for. This applies to antagonists every bit as much as it does to an ally. Conjuring empathy for each and every secondary character makes those characters more engaging, and it forces you as the writer to create the most compelling protagonist possible. Your protagonist’s desire to reach a particular goal fueled by unmet inner need will have to work that much harder to earn that top spot in reader’s hearts because you’ll have crafted compelling contenders, vying for that spot.
Let’s talk about three ways to achieve this…
They Must Have Their Own Inner Desire/External Goal
It helps to look at any given scene from the perspective of every secondary character you’ve included. If those characters are only on the page to help your protagonist achieve/block their goal, then it’s a missed opportunity. Secondary characters should consistently add tension to scenes—tension that grows your protagonist internally or externally. It’s far more interesting when we get a sense for what other characters want in a scene because we can gauge how that may help or harm what the protagonist wants.
Even if your secondary character is supporting your protagonist and aiming to reach the same external goal, their inner motivation shouldn’t be the same as any other character. What’s motivating each of your secondary characters? Does their motivation conjure empathy in the reader, even if we don’t support that end or we still cheer for the protagonist more? What’s the logic or backstory behind that secondary character’s motivation? Does your protagonist wrestle with the way even an antagonist presents logical motivation to them? Does your protagonist struggle seeing what their allies are giving up in order to support the protagonist’s end?
Tip: A secondary character cannot help or rescue your character without your character losing something they value.
The Secondary Character Must Challenge Your Protagonist in Some External And/Or Internal Way
If your secondary character is an ally or a romantic interest of your protagonist, we might not expect that they’re working like an antagonist, trying to thwart the protagonist’s success. Still, even allies and love interests should be working to grow the protagonist.
*Is that secondary character working like a mirror the protagonist doesn’t want to see themselves in?
*Are they asking hard questions about the protagonist’s hidden fears or motivations?
*Is the secondary character someone the protagonist wants to be like but they’re not ready or unable to accept that they’re never going to be that way?
*Are they asking more from your protagonist than the protagonist is ready to give?
*What does retaining that ally or love interest cost your protagonist?
*How does having that character’s help or support complicate things?
*Are they forcing your protagonist to look at backstory events from a different perspective?
*Forcing the protagonist to empathize with the motivation of any given antagonist?
Tip: The answers to these questions should not be the same for any two secondary characters. Each secondary character must challenge the protagonist differently in order to earn their keep.
Their Dialogue Can’t Solely Exist to Teach Your Character (And Reader) About The Story World
We’ve all heard it. Secondary characters saying things like, “As you know,” or sitting your character down to hand them the handbook on your story world. As much as possible, the dialogue and even the actions of your secondary characters should convey intent and a hint of their own inner world. The problem with dialogue that carries worldbuilding or stark plot-based information is that it oftentimes fails to reveal more to us about your protagonist or that secondary character. Worse yet, it leaves almost no room for the protagonist to respond with dialogue that conveys their own intent or emotion. Unless your protagonist has approached a secondary character with a very specific question that requires an answer containing information, try to think of secondary character dialogue as an opportunity to reveal their intent and emotion as much as possible. To challenge your protagonist.
Tip: Study every line of dialogue to see if you can attach an emotional “label” to it. You should be able to read the line and sense some primary emotional current running through the content. Anger, avoidance, relief, elation, etc. Emotions that are almost always red flags for weak dialogue are characters expressing awe or curiosity. Lines like, “Wow!” or, “What is that?” Those types of lines simply exist to set the other character up to talk at the other character/us more. If the line of dialogue doesn’t leave space for a response of some sort, then you know it’s not reaching its potential for adding tension.
What aspects of secondary character creation do you struggle with most? Do you find secondary characters easier to craft since the pressure isn’t as direct as it may be in crafting the protagonist? When you develop secondary characters, how do you bring them to life effectively?
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over seven years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Marissa below.