How to Write Compelling Secondary Characters

This week I’ve received a comment about secondary characters, and more specifically, how many characters should support your protagonist? In truth, every story is individual; Game of Thrones notoriously has a large cast of characters, whilst The Martian focuses solely on the plight of the protagonist for the best part of the story.

Therefore the plot holds the key to such questions, a better question to consider would be; how can I create context for the MC struggles? What internal or external circumstances, characters or environment will best serve and/or antagonise my protagonist? How can you help develop your protagonists story arc?

Secondary characters can provide powerful purposes within our stories. They can help to advance the plot in ways the protagonist cannot. They create conflict that stymies the protagonists journey. They can help to deepen the theme through dialogue, backstory and actions. Whilst help to reveal elements of worldbuilding through their individual point of view.

Here is a guide of the types of characters who may accompany your protagonist on their journey.

The sidekick – This character can also be the protagonists friend, or family member. Whilst they accompany the hero on his quest, they may well hinder, create conflict, become their confidant and most importantly add an element of comedy or surprise, just like Ron Wesley in Harry Potter.

The Magicians - Margo Meme

The friend – The nurturing companion who is always available to lend a shoulder to cry on. They help the hero to realise their own path, to be there after conflicts to give them the strength to continue onwards. Hagrid from Harry Potter is a great example.

The mentor – The wise soul who gives council, hints at vital clues whilst offering training and experience to the young apprentice. Remember not to make the story too easy, your mentor should lead the protagonist to the answers without actually telling him how to solve the problems.

The love interest – Create romance and tension within the story by adding an element of romance. It stirs internal conflict driving your protagonist to explore new emotions.  You could raise the stakes by forcing your protagonist to sacrifice something in order to save them. Or if romance is not central to your plot, maybe their love interest is merely a way to round out your character, a way to introduce their backstory and reveal another side to their personality.

The Magicians - Alice Meme

The healer – When your character gets injured, or faces a time of great healing, they will require someone who can aid them. This type of character helps the protagonist recover and strengthen up before they move on with their journey. This flexible character will add a fresh dimension to the story as your protagonist fights to overcome their injury/ illness.

The Herold – This character will call the protagonist into action, starting them on their journey. They give instructions in the beginning, like Gandalf who sets Bilbo Baggins off in The Hobbit. Often the protagonists ignores, rebels, or simply persists the call to action until they’re forced to act.

The Magicians High king and Queen meme

The antagonist – Unlike all of the influencer characters the antagonists purpose is to create conflict, to prevent your protagonist from reaching his goals, to stay one step ahead until the climax of the story. Ultimately allowing the protagonist to grow, to improve, to reach a point where they can defeat or overcome the antagonist. They may take form as the bully, the irate boss, the murder your trying to track, or the power crazy queen who needs to be usurp.

The family – Families come in all forms, some supportive and others abusive. Inside each family the dynamic will vary depending on the types of characters involved. You may encounter the herald, the friend, the side kick, the antagonist and a love interest all within one family. We see such dynamic interactions in Hunger games when Katniss sacrifices herself to save her sister.

Author Lorraine Ambers - fantasy romance writer

Have fun, get creative and play around with these side characters as a way to introduce conflict, obstacles, tension, support and stability.

Tell me, how many characters does your WIP have? And apart from your protagonist, who is your favourite and why? Don’t be shy, share your ideas, you know I love hearing from you.

Thanks for stopping by, until next time, Much Love.

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© Author Lorraine Ambers and http://www.lorraineambers.com, 2019.

39 thoughts on “How to Write Compelling Secondary Characters

  1. I’m kind of crazy. I have…I believe, at least 15 or 16 characters in my story. Each one has their own backstory and running subplot. As for who my favorite would be, it’s probably a tie between Raven and Robin. They’re both vampires, but as different as two people can be. Raven was a butler in his previous life. So, he is very old fashioned in what he wears and thinks and in how he talks. Robin is a lot younger than Raven with a more modern way of thinking and dressing. He has a rougher speech pattern than Raven with a tendency to drop his ‘g’s and to use words like ‘ain’t’.

    Robin started off in the story as someone who was just mad at the entire world, but he has mellowed into a character who plays off very well with those around him. Especially with my lead character, Ambrose. Ambrose and Robin have an awesome older brother/younger brother dynamic, even thought they are not related. Their relationship makes me happy. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe my project is somewhere around 50-60 characters for the main trilogy (and up to 20 more for further to-be-explored prequel ideas).
    As for my favorites apart from the MC:
    Shianna Featherfoot, the MC’s BFF and supportive friend, though there’s a portion where they go through something more (which helps to show some aspects of their personalities and, as they are at the coming-of-age point, the contrast between dreams and reality). Most likely a favorite because I made her up on the spot when I started writing without any specific plan yet she remained a major supporting character for the whole story.
    Then, there’s an underling of the secondary antagonist who shows a different side to him, a side I enjoyed exploring.
    Plus some minor characters who have only a few appearances but make them count.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “I made her up on the spot when I started writing without any specific plan yet she remained a major supporting character for the whole story.” I have quite a few characters like that. I have two in particular who were supposed to show up, play their small part in the story, and then leave. But then they both convinced me that there was a lot more to them and they solemnly swore that they would definitely help out in the end. So, I let them stay. Now, they’re one of my favorite couples to write, even though they currently aren’t together.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Absolutely!

        It’s an amazing feeling when the story seems to take over the reins. I had a plan for one of my side characters to burn down this particular building after my main character’s wedding. But my side character got angry at the rehearsal dinner and decided that this was the day it was all going down. And honestly? It worked out so much better having it happen before the wedding. It opened up some interesting side plots and paralleled what was happening to a separate character.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I love it too, especially when a secondary character’s usefulness catches me off guard. I had two side characters who showed up and tried to claim their spot in the story. I almost deleted them because they felt unnecessary and redundant. But I kept them around and I’m so glad I did. They freed up another character so he could try to find someone. And they also turned into one of my favorite couples to write for.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Your worldbuilding must be vast, I love exploring many complex characters that interlock with one another, it sounds as though you’ve used your secondary characters to the plots advantage. Thanks for sharing part of your WIP. 🙏

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sometimes I think my generally short comments make it sound way better than my WIP actually is but, considering I know it inside out and had read through it several times, I know I am a poor judge of myself and my project. Either way, thanks for your kind words.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. For my WIP, the two main protagonists serve as side characters for each other. The POV shifts between chapters, adding depth to their relationship and how these characters feel. Well, that’s what I’m aiming for anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. One thing I’ve noticed in a lot of books is the tendency to get rid of one or more parent in order to force the main character to act independently. I think it’s a tendency in story-writing to make the MC more lonely, and I’m curious how a book without that aspect would feel.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a good way to do it. Because having a complete family may add unnecessary characters. Unless a secondary character helps to move the plot forward or challenge/ enable the growth of the protagonist, then there’s no point in including them in the story.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Took me some time to get to my reading site! Sorry, i always love reading your posts. They are always amazing and so inspireing!!! ❤ I think I have to rethink my concept about my side characters. They are not as definite as you described them. Maybe my antagonist has to be more of a villain. 😉 Thank you a lot!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting! An antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a villain, just someone that is an opposing force to what the protagonist wants.
      In some novels the antagonistic force might not even be a character, it could be an internal struggle, like a mental illness, or an external environment, like how to survive when stranded at sea. As long as your MC has something to overcome your story is on the right track.

      Like

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  7. Love how you’ve distinguished the different secondary characters so clearly here, Lorraine! Well-written secondary characters definitely add flavour and depth to a protagonist’s journey – I’ve certainly found them helpful with my own WIP.
    I’d say there are about three main secondary ‘units’ in my own WIP: the first group of working civilians my MC meets & whose intimidation from the antagonist helps advance the plot; the close-knit family of flatmates who act as the MC’s ‘port in a storm’/ refuge; and the former veteran crew who befriend the MC & help him actively oppose the antagonist as the story unfolds. Hopefully their individual subplots will still tie the story arc together. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. Lorraine, do you think it is OK for a writer to attempt to portray a character with qualities the writer doesn’t have? For instance, I am not funny at all but I would love the secondary character to have a sense of humour which means there is a risk the character will sound lame rather than really funny. For instance, I have raad a short story where the character is supposed to be wise but the writer is not particularly wise himself so the wisdom was on the ‘weak side’. Do you think it is better to stay away from qualities you do not possess or to try anyways?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a great question.
      It’s important that we continue to write characters with many different qualities and traits from ourselves.
      The trick is to people watch, take interest in those that differ from you. Make notes of the funny/ wise things people say.
      If you’re not sure, approach people of wisdom and ask for there in put.
      A good writer always researches, this includes the human conditions.
      Happy writing. 😊

      Like

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