Friday, September 21, 2012

Developing Your Novel: Putting Secondary Characters First

I've been talking about developing a story. Sometimes when planning a novel, we focus exclusively on the main character. But secondary characters are important for fleshing out the story world.

Every novel – and most short stories and picture books – will have secondary characters. In general, the longer the book, the more secondary characters you can fit. These can be family members, friends, teachers or bosses, aliens, mythical characters, or even pets. Some will be nice. Some will be annoying. Ideally, one or more should be trouble.

I’m not talking about villains here (I'll do that next week). But even well-meaning secondary characters can make your main character’s life more complicated. When writing for children, parents are a natural for this role. They may simply want what they see as best for their child – but if that is opposed to what the child wants, it adds complications. These could be strong enough to form the main plot, or could simply be additional challenges the child has to face.

Example: In the Haunted series, Tania doesn’t want anyone to know that she can see ghosts. She’s afraid that her mother would want her to contact her dead little sister, and she doesn’t know how. Her stepfather would want to use her on his ghost hunter TV show, and people would think she was nuts. And her father doesn’t believe in ghosts, so he might think she was lying to get attention. Well-meaning family members with their own agendas make her desperate to keep her “gift” a secret.

Other examples of conflicting desires may be a dad who wants his son to play football, while the son wants to join the band, or parents who don’t want their daughter to date yet, when she’s fallen in love. A parent may be even a greater challenge, if he or she is an alcoholic, seriously ill, or depressed. Then, of course, there’s the issue of a divorced or widowed parent dating!

Even in adult novels, a parent may add pressure. In a romance, Mom may want the heroine to marry and provide grandchildren, nagging her to settle for the wrong man. Bosses can also add challenges, whether by pressuring the main character to do something illegal for the company or simply demanding long work hours which distract from other goals. In my new novel What We Found (written as Kris Bock), the 22-year-old heroine has allies and enemies both at work and at home.

Don’t forget friends, either! Friends can give bad advice, have their own agenda, use the main character for popularity or access to something or someone, or even secretly be trying to steal the main character’s love interest/job/position in society.

That’s not to say all friends have to be sneaky betrayers. Even the best of friends might distract the main character with their own emotional problems. In the teen romantic comedy My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters, by Sydney Salter, the heroine’s main goal is to save enough money from her summer job to get a nose job, so she can find a boyfriend. Her two best friends have their own problems with boys and jobs. In one scene, the main character is late to work, jeopardizing her job, because she’s been trying to protect a friend who had too much to drink.

Exercise: go through your work in progress and list every secondary character who has a role beyond a few lines. Make a few notes on each one – what is their basic personality and role in the story? What do they want?

Then, for each secondary character, ask:

•    Could I develop this character more, to make him or her more complicated?
•    How could this secondary character be causing problems for my main character?
•    If the character is already causing problems, could they be even worse?

If you don’t have many secondary characters, consider adding some. What kind of character could add complications and drama? Make sure any new secondary characters fit smoothly into the plot, and don’t feel like they are just shoved in to cause trouble.

Check out my latest romantic suspense, written under the name Kris Bock!
What We Found: When Audra stumbles on a murdered woman in the woods, more than one person isn't happy about her bringing the crime to light. She’ll have to stand up for herself in order to stand up for the murder victim. It’s a risk, and so is reaching out to the mysterious young man who works with deadly birds of prey. But with danger all around, some risks are worth taking. 


  1. Some great ideas here on using secondary characters to create more depth in your main character. I struggle to give my secondary characters real character, but I think it adds a lot to a story when it is done well.