Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Second to None

Secondary characters in stories are created for various reasons; most often because it's hard to write a story about only one person (unless you're doing one of those depressing post-apocalyptic things, in which case you can ignore this post.)

A good portion of the secondary characters I read in other writers' work are what I think of as reactors. Is the weary hero having a bad day? In pops his Reactor Good Buddy to buy him a beer and ask him why. Is the antagonist preparing to destroy the world? Over limps his Reactor Igor to hand him the Doomsday Remote Detonator. Is the angry heroine packing her bags to leave town? Her Reactor Best Friend is there to help her stow her toiletries, listen to her rant and reassure her that she's doing the right thing.

This is the biggest mistake I see made with secondary characters, too. While they might be well-crafted as people in an outline, once they appear in the story they seem to have no lives outside of what's happening to the prime time players. Most come off like paperdolls, dressed and posed and about as animated and interesting.

I think a writer should know much more about their characters than the reader ever will. Think about this when you're creating your secondary characters, and especially when you put them into play in your story. They're not just there to react to the protag, they're there to interact. To illustrate this, let's follow what happens in this scene from my novel Evermore:

As Byrne made his way to the stables, he stopped every man of the Realm who crossed his path and demanded to know if they had seen Jayr. All of them claimed they had not and offered to look for her. The innocence of their expressions aroused Byrne’s suspicions, and he made a detour to stop at the wardrobe keeper’s chambers.

Farlae came to the door in his shirt sleeves, an open bottle of bloodwine in his hand. “May I be of service, my lord?”

“You can tell me where Jayr is,” Byrne said. “Dinnae not bother to deny that you know. Nothing happens under my roof that you or your spies cannae see or hear.”

“I know that Jayr went into the city early this afternoon. Just as I know that you spent most of the morning sitting outside her bedchamber door.” Farlae propped himself against the doorframe, his one black eye glinting. “As does, I daresay, the entire jardin. Doesn’t seem like a very comfortable spot. Is there something amiss with your own bed?”

Byrne’s lips peeled back from his teeth. “What business is it of yours what I do? I am master here. I will take my rest naked, on the battlements, among a herd of goats if it pleases me.”

Farlae shrugged. “Goats are overrated, or so I have heard. Sheep, now, they are said to be quite another matter. I may have to investigate that myself.” He drank from the bottle.


This scene is in Byrne's POV, so his problems dominate the situation. However, Farlae is getting drunk -- or trying to -- and being insolent versus sympathetic to the lord he serves. As the scene progresses, we discover that not all of that has to do with Byrne:

Killing his wardrobe keeper, Byrne decided, would not take a great deal of effort. The hall held at least twenty objects with which he could end the man’s existence. Only the prospect of Rainer’s weeping held him back. “Why did Jayr go to town?”

“Deliveries held up, damaged goods, paperwork to be signed, feed deliveries rescheduled, the usual,” the wardrobe keeper said casually. “I hope she remembers to pick up the parts that came in at the Singer Center for my serger.” He thought for a moment. “I believe a week ago Rain requested Jayr order four gallons of latex paint from the hardware shop. It seems he tired of the colors in his rooms. Too bad he won’t be here to repair them.”

“These errands could be handled by anyone. These are the last days of the tournament; Jayr knows she is needed here—” Byrne stopped and gave Farlae an incredulous look. “You did this deliberately.”

“The serger failed on its own,” Farlae drawled. “I will need it repaired if I am to tailor all that Lycra the humans must have for their Spring season costumes. I had nothing to do with the paint order. Rain is gone off with Viviana. Good riddance.” He took a drink from the bottle.


Farlae is concerned about how Byrne is treating Jayr, but he's also miserable over the fact that Rain, his lover, has apparently run off with a woman. The combination makes him bitter and sarcastic. Meanwhile, Byrne doesn't help matters by getting angry with Farlae:

Byrne stabbed a finger in his face. “This nonsense was but an excuse to send her into the city. You did this to keep her away from me.”

Farlae lowered the bottle and smiled. “Perhaps we did this to keep you away from her.”

“You’ve gone mad,” Byrne said blankly. “Every one of you. My own men, rebelling and conspiring against me. In my own keepe.”

“Doubtless we are.” Unimpressed, Farlae studied the condition of his nails. “Will there be anything else, my lord?”

“Get stuffed.” Byrne walked away. “No.” He stopped and turned around. “Call Jayr on the contraption she hangs on her ear. Tell her I command her to return to the Realm and report to me at once.”

“Oh, dear.” Farlae held up a familiar-looking device. “Do you mean this contraption? I fear in her haste to go, it fell out of her pocket and into mine. Well, Harlech may have helped it get there.”

Byrne grabbed it and threw it against the wall, where it exploded into a hundred fragments.

“That,” he said, staring into Farlae’s black eye, “is what happens to man’s head when I lose my temper.”

“Indeed.” Farlae folded his arms and looked interested. “What happens to a woman’s?”

For a long time Byrne stood and said nothing, saw nothing. For his insolent wardrobe keeper’s questions explained everything. He had lived with these men, trained with them, fought besides them. They were loyal to him because he was suzerain, and they lived by Kyn rule. Some of them admired him. Most of them feared him.

They were loyal to Jayr because they loved her.

“I would never hurt the lass,” Byrne said.

Farlae’s mouth took on a faint sneer. “That is not what I saw last night, outside the ballroom.”


Byrne is shocked to find out that his own men are actively protecting Jayr from him. Farlae witnessed what he thought was Byrne manhandling Jayr the night before, and he doesn't approve. The characters' emotions are at an explosive point now. So, naturally, they both explode:

“I kissed her,” he roared.

“You terrified her,” Farlae shouted back, smashing the bottle of bloodwine against his doorway. “You see, my lord, you were not the only one tracking last night. So tell me, when did your seneschal become your prey?”

“I love her.”

The three words rang between them, echoing down the hall until the shocking sound of them died away. Farlae crouched and began picking up pieces of the broken bottle.

“Christ.” He knelt to help him. “This is a wretched bloody mess.”

“It need not be.” Something like kindness softened Farlae’s craggy face. “Aedan, if you love Jayr, do not force her into something for which she is not ready. Give her leave to come to you, if that is what she wishes. Give her time.” Sorrow filled his eyes. “God knows, you cannot hold someone you love if they do not feel the same for you.”


And right there, Farlae drops the act and shows his true emotions. He is utterly miserable over losing Rain, and draws on that to warn Byrne not to do something that will drive Jayr away. Byrne responds to that in kind:

There was no more time for this. “I’m riding out to the north side of the lake to meet with Cyprien. Tell anyone who is still interested that I will return in an hour.”

Farlae took the shards of glass from him. “Yes, my lord.”

“And Farlae,” he said, staring into his hellish eye, “Rain has as much interest in Viviana as I do in a herd of goats.”

The wardrobe keeper inclined his head. “Thank you, my lord.”


The key here is balance. While Byrne's problems dominate the scene, they don't overshadow or eliminate the existence of Farlae's problems. Both characters reacted according to their different personal situations. Farlae didn't assume the reactor position of responding only to Byrne's problems; he presented his own in various ways, and in fact drew on his pain to offer advice to Byrne.

Also, note that Farlae didn't offer a long monologue or info dump on his situation. He doesn't have to, because aside from the few hints he drops, his behavior reflects it. He's not reacting to Byrne as much as he's venting anger and misery, most of which is generated not by this confrontation, but by losing Rain.

We put a lot of work into creating our secondary characters, so we should take advantage of them. Don't let yours be mere Reactors to your protag(s). Know who your secondary characters are, what's happening in their lives, what they're feeling and how that motivates them before you bring them onstage. Invest them with as much realism as you can, and you'll never end up with a story about a protagonist surrounded by a herd of paperdolls.

Now it's your turn -- how do you handle your secondary characters? What problem(s) do you most often run into with writing them? Let us know in comments.

20 comments:

  1. My secondary characters are much like my friends and acquaintances. They are needed in my life. My biggest problem is how to balance them with the main characters and when to let them steal the scene for future development. Also, how to give them their own storyline and chance in the spotlight without pulling away from the main story thread. Or when to leave them as secondary characters only. I'll appreciate any advice from anyone. Thanks a million!!

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  2. Perfect timing for a post like this..(for me. ) Thank You.

    I always remember a post you did before about using casual characters and making them people, but sometimes forget to make the secondary ones just as useful.

    BTW, the post you did over a year ago (something about a person checking into a hotel? And the clerk being a person instead of a sentence?) inspired me to flesh out a bartender in TROUBLE, and now, based on that one scene, that bartender has her own book coming out in September. LOL

    Thank You for writing craft posts that make sense.

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  3. Most come off like paperdolls, dressed and posed and about as animated and interesting.

    I actually have the opposite problem; my secondary characters often end up being more interesting and developed than my protagonists, to the point where I wonder why I didn't have them lead the story.

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  4. Mind-opening advice there, PBW. Thanks!

    (and after reading it, I suspect I handle my secondary characters...badly!)

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  5. Big t wrote: My biggest problem is how to balance them with the main characters and when to let them steal the scene for future development. Also, how to give them their own storyline and chance in the spotlight without pulling away from the main story thread. Or when to leave them as secondary characters only.

    You compared your secondary characters to your friends and acquaintances; this is an excellent way to get a handle on balancing them. Think about how you interact with friends in real life; how often they're around you, what they do for you and when you get involved in their lives (because if you were the protagonist of a novel, your friends would be the secondary characters.) Compare what happens in real life to what's happening on the page and look for the differences, then adjust and apply the real life reality to the problem areas.

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  6. Sasha wrote: BTW, the post you did over a year ago (something about a person checking into a hotel? And the clerk being a person instead of a sentence?) inspired me to flesh out a bartender in TROUBLE, and now, based on that one scene, that bartender has her own book coming out in September. LOL

    How utterly cool -- and Drivebys is the post I think you're talking about.

    I love my secondary characters for the same reason -- when I get them right, they always want their own stories told. Rain and Farlae have been bugging me for months to tell their whole story. :)

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  7. Same wrote: I actually have the opposite problem; my secondary characters often end up being more interesting and developed than my protagonists, to the point where I wonder why I didn't have them lead the story.

    That's why God created the sequel, yes? Ha.

    Seriously, I know what you mean. I think of it as having too many cooks in the kitchen. All of them in there at once can spoil the meal, but if they're all great cooks, who do you boot out?

    I've learned to limit how much time very interesting secondary characters spend on stage. Rain and Farlae are great characters, but I have to use them sparingly, or their situation would overpower the prime time players.

    Also, when the secondaries appeal to me more than my protagonists, I look at what I'm doing with the latter. Sometimes in an effort to make the protagonist heroic, we overlook or weed out so many natural character flaws that they become the sort of 24/7 do-gooder wonderkid that feels flat and boring. That's the reason I so often end up cheering for the antagonist in another writer's story, too -- because the protag is such an idealized character that they're a crashing bore.

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  8. Buffysquirrel wrote: Mind-opening advice there, PBW. Thanks!

    You're welcome. :)

    (and after reading it, I suspect I handle my secondary characters...badly!)

    It's an ongoing battle, I think, for all of us. The day I master the secondary character, I'm throwing a three-day party in Times Square.

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  9. Great post, PBW, and timely as always. I have a secondary character who's sort of stealing the show. I've been calling it "his" book even though he's not the protag, but he is a killer (literally) character. I keep interviewing him, trying to figure out what makes him work so well. What he told me is that every good, believable character, whether secondary or not, is the HERO of his own story, complete with goal, motivation, and conflict. He has a secret heart's desire that must never happen (else my whole world I've built in these stories will fall apart), yet he yearns for it on every page. Keeping him from getting it has proven to be quite the challenge, even though we both know the cost.

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  10. Joely Sue wrote: What he told me is that every good, believable character, whether secondary or not, is the HERO of his own story, complete with goal, motivation, and conflict.

    Wow. I don't think you can put it any better than that. (note to self: instead of writing another long-ass post, have Joely weigh in first.)

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  11. Your long-ass post was spot on and made me want to read Evermore again and again... while I look at the calendar and curse the months before the next Darkyn book!

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  12. Thank you so much for this. It was very helpful to see an example which illustrated your point well.

    I'm not sure if I fall into the trap of having the secondary characters as puppets to the protag, or if the secondary characters are actually more interesting than the protag, but either way with this post I'll be on the lookout in my writing for these and make sure to get it right.

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  13. This is a great post and very timely. I've been thinking a LOT about characters--and even blogged about it!

    Funny enough the proposal I'm working on I know the male protag and 4 secondary characters better than I know the female one--maybe there's something I don't know about her. Maybe she's not as important as I thought but I don't think so. Wait....that didn't sound right LOL

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  14. Very helpful! Although I have the opposite problem. When I finished my manuscipt, I discovered my protag was a Reactor. In act, you coudl do the whole book without him. So I've got some heavy rewriting ahead of me.

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  15. In a way, I don't really think of my secondary characters as "secondary." When they're included in a scene, they are as real and, hopefully, as rounded (at least in my mind) as the lead characters.

    In my last book, a walk-on character was so real and alive to me that he began to take over and I soon discovered that he didn't want to go away. He went from walk-on to secondary fairly quickly, and his life and back story are an important part of the overall story.

    While my secondary characters may have an arc of their own, their story is often used to comment on the main character's storyline. Every story becomes a stew of interconnecting personalities, each bringing their own baggage to the mix.

    Rob GB

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  16. Yep. Driveby's was the post! *grin*

    Thanks! I love the examples.

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  17. Uh.... the bad writer in me is saying that I ignore them when I can because they like to push in on the story and start insisting they get a story, too...

    But when they don't let me ignore them, I try to focus on what they bring to the story. Make sure that's coming through.

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  18. My secondary characters get readers pissed off with me. Because I kill the characters.

    Well, hell. It's an old tradition, ain't it. Secondaries are for killing. Born with target marks on their foreheads, backs, whatever.

    Actually, many tend to get their own stories if a series runs long enough, but yes, some get axed and I've had readers get upset with me for it. I think it's because I try not to make them into paper doll. I treat them as much like real people as a I can. Until I kill them dead. Ultimately, all secondary characters are still plot devices.

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  19. Excellent advice as always. This post is going straight into my favourites folder.

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  20. That was a great post--the examples were really helpful. I just started a new novel and the main character's brother is going to be very important, I think. He has to help her remember, but he also has his own stuff to do, which I'm still discovering. It's a little like digging into a trunk and finding out what family history is there.

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