Monday, January 16, 2012

Primarily Secondary

Every so often it's a good idea to take a step back and do some serious analysis. (Actually, it's a good idea to do this regularly...) This week's victim subject: secondary characters.

 In fact, I started off by analyzing my very favorite books in an attempt to figure out why I love them as I do. Main characters, of course, were high on the list, as was plot and setting and prose quality. Yet I was surprised by the fifth top 5 characteristic: secondary characters. Honestly, I couldn't rank these things in order. Because, yes, Anne of Green Gables wouldn't be Anne of Green Gables without, well, Anne or Green Gables—but what would it be without Gilbert Blythe? What would Harry Potter be without the Weasleys? What would Pride and Prejudice be without Mr. Collins?
They'd be soulless, robot-ish creatures, in my opinion, something like the literary equivalent of zombies. (Hmm, if only they knew all they had to do to achieve Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was take out a few secondary characters? ;)
Right now I'm at the point in my new WIP where I'm creating a bunch of secondaries. It's a daunting task—1st, because I know how important it is, and 2nd, because the plot forces about eight people onto the stage/page at the same time. I was grinding my teeth over it last night, but I've realized it's a good thing. Whereas with slow intros, there's a temptation to under-develop secondaries, it's impossible when a lot appear at once. They have to be unique, or the reader will drop the book and run while they can.

Onward, then, to my completely intuited (fancy for made-up) list of secondary-character-creating essentials:

1. Make them unique. Furthermore, make them unique on the surface. Readers don't have time to figure out that Jane prefers chocolate ice cream while Jill prefers cake, but they'll notice if Jane carries a jump rope around with her and Jill overindulges in her use of the word “like.” (Similarly, don't ever give them names that sound as alike as Jane and Jill if you can help it!)

2. Know what they look like, then only tell the important details. Particularly, be careful not to spend too much time on eye color unless it's important...because noticing eye color makes a statement. Most people won't make direct eye contact with everyone in a group. (Conversely, if you're writing YA and want to subtly convey that a MC is attracted to someone, go ahead and dwell on the eyes.)

3.Think carefully about speech patterns. Also, speech tendencies. In real life, some people will do most of the talking and some are content to fade into the background.

4. Ask yourself: can I group any characters together to make them less confusing? (The reason there are so many twins in literature.)

5. Be careful of being too random. I know this seems to counteract everything I just said, but do remember that if every character has a different eye color, ethnicity, etc. it will seem terribly contrived.

6. Finally, remember that every secondary character is the hero of his or her own story. Even though most of it won't come into your book, you should know all those stories. Take the time to create these characters as you would your main character, and it will always show.

I'll finish up with a list of my favorite secondaries (in no particular order—and these are just the recently analyzed ones), and you can tell me who yours are in the comments!

Zero, from Holes
Gilbert, Diana, Matthew, Mrs. Lynde, Phillipa, Davy, Walter, and Faith, from various Anne books
Ilse, from Emily of New Moon
Every secondary character Austen or Rowling or Dickens ever wrote
Merry and Pippin, from The Lord of the Rings
Puddleglum and Reepicheep, from The Chronicles of Narnia
Pellinore, from The Once and Future King
Spiller, from The Borrowers series
Toots, from The Faerie Ring
Razo, from The Goose Girl
Piper, from Al Capone Does My Shirts
Mr. and Mrs. Owens, from The Graveyard Book


  1. I love secondary characters! I am thinking right now of Foaly from Artemis Fowl...Imagine the story without his sarcasm! :)

  2. Wow, this is an awesome post! Thanks for visiting my blog and I'm going to follow yours BECAUSE you mentioned Gilbert Blythe. My son's name is...wait for it...Blythe Gilbert. No lie!

    ALSO, I'd never thought about noticing eye color. I always do, but my husband rarely does. So I tend to have MCs who notice it, too. But good to think about for those secondary characters!

    I had a secondary character in my historical fiction novel that literally SPRANG (spring, sprang, sprung?) off the page at me. He became a hingepin of my story, so much so that I was looking for ways to work him in earlier in the book.

    And love the not-too-random idea. Important to be realistic in how we make those characters look (especially family, who usually have some similarities but are not completely homogenous).

  3. Great post Faith! I totally agree with your analysis-secondaries breathe life into the story but its a challenge to keep them three dimensional. Imagine my surprise to see Toots on your list! He'll be so pleased- bit of a ham, you know. :-) thanks!

  4. This is an excellent - and very helpful - post, Faith! Thank you! I saved it for future reference. :)

  5. True words! I love your comment on eye color. It's true that it's not something we always notice, so why do we as writers harp on it so much. It should be reserved for moments of emphasis.

    I have a soft spot for secondary characters. Your list made me very nostalgic.

  6. Great post! Secondary characters are sometimes my favorite. I love having them for comic relief and also for letting the reader learn more about my MC through the way the secondary characters interact with the MC.

  7. What a fantastic post! Loved the reference to zombies. I really enjoy creating secondary characters. They often take on a life of their own in a more natural way than my MCs do.


  8. Yes, excellent! I have been told some of my secondary characters are too one dimentional, they are just as important... I'm working on fixing that.

  9. I love your Blaise from THE WITHERING VINE


    Nola from RED GLASS