Breathing Life Into Secondary Characters

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As writers, we all lavish attention on the main characters of our stories. But what about the minor characters? Too often, a story’s  secondary characters get short shrift during the writing process.

And that’s a shame, because it’s often the minor characters–the second bananas–who often carry the show. Don’t short change your reader by giving them secondary characters who are generic or cardboard: the “leggy blonde” who is tossed in for a frisson of sexual tension; the “beefy cop” who turns up at a crime scene; the “tired-looking” hotel clerk. Those types of descriptions tell the reader that the writer needed to include a particular character to move a scene forward, but didn’t put any effort into bringing the character to life.

All secondary character need to live and breathe for the reader. In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that every character in a book thinks of himself or herself as the main character. Whenever that character is on stage, even briefly, he should be presented as if a spotlight is shining on him.

When it comes to strong secondary characters, a few standouts come to mind: Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird; Melanie in Gone with the Wind; the wealthy, pompous Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice.

Which secondary characters are the most memorable for you in thrillers or mysteries? As a writer, do you struggle with the challenge of portraying second bananas?

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16 thoughts on “Breathing Life Into Secondary Characters

  1. Joe Pike was a secondary character in Robert Crais’s debut Monkey’s Raincoat. Pike soon became more integral until Crais spun him off to his own series. Hard to believe Pike was EVER secondary. He was always a guy waiting for his shot.

  2. Every secondary character thinks he’s the hero of the story–I’m glad Pike got his star turn! Thanks Jordan!

  3. And don’t forget pets. Sometimes a specially trained dog can steal the spotlight, like Carl in Jordan Dane’s Mercer’s War Series. I love Carl!

  4. Sgt. Havers in the Inspector Lynley series written by Elizabeth George. She dealt with a difficult boss, struggled trying to balance her work life with caring for her elderly, dementia-stricken parents, and didn’t know what to make of her feelings toward her landlord and his young daughter. George eventually moved Lynley off-stage for one book and let Havers bask in the limelight. That wouldn’t have worked if Havers hadn’t been so thoroughly developed over the series.

  5. This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to, and it’s one of those cases where I’ve wondered if movies aren’t rubbing off onto books in a bad way. If you think about movies made under the old studio system you often had a variety of well-formed (and played) secondary characters. Think of all the bit players in Casablanca, for instance, or the GWTW example above. Even movies that you wouldn’t think of as ensemble pieces, say Stalag 17 or The Searchers, have interesting and developed secondary characters. Nowadays it’s pretty rare to see these much. After all, studios don’t have actors with weekly paychecks they need to do something with. The overwhelming majority of the cast budget goes to the “star”, and after that there’s not much left. That star is going to be in nearly, if not every, scene. Forget supporting characters, except where absolutely necessary.

    Even if a writer wants to believe he/she is a speshul snowflake too rarefied for movies, well, they’re a dominant story force. People see them. Many writers would love to see their book(s) adapted, and more than one is probably rehearsing his/her academy speech now. So…. maybe this trend is influencing, whether consciously or not, how writers approach a story. Concentrate on the main characters, supporting where necessary. Give ’em a couple of lines of description and that’s all the character they need, right?

    I dunno. That’s just my theory. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Love me some Joe Pike. Here’s the weird thing: I actually liked him better as a supporting character. He was more brooding, mysterious. On his own he’s almost ordinary.

    “I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.”

  6. It is a surprise to many that Chingachgook, seemingly a secondary character in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, in fact, becomes the last Mohican.

  7. Spenser’s love interest, Susan Silverman, and his lethal sidekick Hawk are memorable secondary characters from Robert B. Parker’s detective oeuvre.

  8. My two fav’s are:

    • Meyer in John D. MacDonald’s “colorful” Travis McGee series;

    • Henry Standing-Bear in Craig Johnson’s Longmire series;

  9. Recently I have been reading/listening to Sue Grafton’s alphabet series of books. She has an older neighbor Henry, they seem to adore each other. In each story Henry is involved with something – trying to organize someone’s paperwork for tax purposes – getting way into water conservation. In each novel, no matter how busy the main character private detective Kinsey Millhone is, she some how gets involved in it with him. Since she works alone and lives alone a constantly present neighbor was a great addition to the story.

    Even though a reader might disagree, I believe I put a lot of character into my secondary characters. I have a story about teen twins, a boy and a girl, and each of them have a circle of three friends that are crucial to their individual story. It was important to me each one of them added to the main character in a very different way through their personality. I’d like to think if I wrote a side story about one of them without using their name the reader would immediately know whose story it was.

  10. Kharzai Ghiassi is a CIA deep cover operative and wet work specialist. He was the ultra-violent comic relief in my first novel, Karl’s Last Flight. By the time I finished that book, and people started reading I knew I had hit gold with this guy. That knowledge didn’t occur before I finished my second novel, 65 Below, but Kharzai reappeared in the third, Faithful Warrior and Midnight Sun, and as the main sidekick in my current series, Ice Hammer. I have decided that, like Steven Pressfield’s Telemon, Kharzai will be a major supporting character in every book I write from this point forward.

    While I primarily write military thrillers, he is even going to make an appearance or two in my leprechaun series, Brothers Four.

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