Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Creating Memorable Secondary Characters

Who says main characters get all the attention?

Think of Dorie in Finding Nemo. 

As a secondary character, she steals the show with her humor.

Rhino, the loveable hamster in Bolt, adds panache as he cheers for Bolt and becomes endearing to us in his own right.

How about Abu from Aladdin, the kids in Incredibles?

Who can forget the old lady with a shotgun in Ratatouille?

Or housekeeper, Minnie, from The Help?

Now, how can you create a secondary character that's loveable, despicable, memorable, hilarious, endearing, or infuriating?

Give your secondary characters a fascinating backstory.

Alley Cat Pepper suggested journaling from the perspective of my antagonist over a year ago. Since then, I've done so with a variety of other characters. Getting into their heads has definitely helped me write stronger secondary characters.

Make him/her sequel worthy.

You know you've created an in-depth secondary character when readers beg for a sequel from that character's perspective. One example would be Surrender the Dawn by Mary Lu Tyndall. I so desperately wanted to read Luke's story because he was an excellent secondary character with a lot of depth.

Give them a quirky trait, particularly as they are relating to your hero or heroine.

Any character who shows up more than once should have at least a few identifying traits. 

Maybe the car repairman has a nervous tic and always shakes when he's signing the receipts.

Perhaps the doctor who has diagnosed your heroine's cancer always smiles when giving bad news. Its a nervous habit.

If they are a more major secondary character, go even more in-depth with their personality.

Think of your secondary character who has the most major role in the story. Consider taking a few minutes to take an MBTI assessment on your most important secondary character. Interview your secondary character as if your his or her therapist.

The Book Buddy is a resource that has helped me increase the depth of my minor characters.

Think about motivations of this secondary character. Why do they do what they do? What are their needs? Do they have a "lie" they believe that affects the main character? 

For instance, although we are each responsible for our own journeys perhaps mom believed a lie that she then "taught" to the main character during childhood. Main character has to unlearn this lie throughout her journey.

You don't have to include all these details in the story (in fact you probably shouldn't) but it can help you to understand their journey and to write more compelling scenes.

Don't forget the most compelling secondary characters don't need to be human.

Think of Dorie. Abu. The dog in The Accidental Tourist. 

Pets can be believable and loveable companions to your character and have their own quirky traits.

Remember opposites attract isn't just true in romantic scenarios.

Sidekicks are often compelling and interesting because they have opposite personality traits to the main character. Think of movies with a "funny" sidekick. Danny DeVito has often played this role in the movies. These characters make us laugh. Even in the most serious books (I enjoy writing what my hubby likes to call women with issues fiction...though who among us doesn't have issues) we need a break for laughter.

A good secondary character is an emotion trigger.

Our main character typically isn't neutral toward a well-drawn secondary character. She helps draw out emotion from the main character. 

For a great example of this, check out this post by Susan May Warren.

Do you have a favorite secondary character from the movies or books? Why is he or she your favorite? Or who is the most compelling secondary character in your story and why?

 Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys reading and reviewing books for The Title Trakk and Christian Library Journal.


Cindy R. Wilson said...

Great post! You're absolutely right about secondary characters. They definitely make an impact and can help readers enjoy a book that much more. I try to write funny or exasperating secondary characters that make a little more conflict for my MC but still end up helping them in the long run.

Julia M. Reffner said...

I loved your ideas on deepening characters in recent posts and have used several of them lately. I can't wait until that day when we get to read your quirky and fun characters in print :).

Angie Dicken said...

Great points, Julia! My secondary character, Lyddie, is a spunky daredevil and helps pull my heroine out of her shell. I loved writing her, and thought about writing a sequel novel using her as the heroine.

As far as other stories, since you talked about movies, I love the old men in Return To Me...and Rosie O'Donnell's character in Sleepless In Seattle!

Anonymous said...

Cindy, love your idea about writing funny or exasperating secondary characters. Maybe I need to re-think one of my secondary characters to incorporate some of those traits.

Julia, love this post. You share some great points that I'm already thinking on.

As far as fun secondary characters, I have to mention Gimli, from Lord of the Rings. He is hilarious and adds levity with his one liners and friendly competition with Legolas.

From my story, I have one mean secondary character/antagonist, and one who's "been around the block" and is a truth speaker for my heroine. Does that count? :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

Secondary characters can be so fun, Julia! Think of Meg Ryan's quirky boyfriend in You've Got Mail --or even Tom Hank's quirky (and annoying) girlfriend. Think of TV shows like Burn Notice of Lie to Me or NCIS: the secondary characters are vital to the shows!

Lindsay Harrel said...

Donkey from Shrek. 'Nuff said. ;)

Great post, Julia!

Julia M. Reffner said...


From just hearing what you've sharing about Lyddie I have a feeling she would be a favorite character for me, too. Sounds like she would be a great sequel MC.

Oh, yes, love Rosie O'Donnell in Sleepless. Also loved Rita Wilson's character.


I think having a truth speaking secondary character is a great idea! I'm sure he/she really deepens the plot. Yes, Gimli is great! He and Legolas are definitely highlights in LOTR.


Great examples! I love the characters in You've Got Mail. The Eprhon sisters sure know how to write secondary characters.

Julia M. Reffner said...


YES, YES, gotta love Donkey! Thanks for stopping by.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Thanks Julia! I learn so much from you ladies at the Writer's Alley. The whole experience has been a blessing and I'm looking forward to seeing what else I learn :)

Jeanne, Gimli is a great example and so is Beth's mention of You've Got Mail. Those are excellent instances where secondary characters add so much to the story without taking away from the growth of the main character - in fact, they help enhance it!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Ooooo, great post, Julia! There are so many times that I love the secondary characters more than the main! Like in Tangled....THE HORSE IS AWESOME!!!!! Or the little dragon in Mulan. Funny stuff! I tend to like the comedy relief, so to have a spunky, hilarious side kick is a HUGE deal for me.

Julia M. Reffner said...


More great examples! I had forgotten about the horse in Tangled! And Mulan. So many of the Disney characters have great animal companions. I can tell that your writing would be very funny.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Great post, Julia!
Part of the fun experience of a story is being distracted by an obnoxious or humorous secondary character. Many of the quotable book and movie lines come from these rascals.
Do they upstage the story/main character-NO. They are the spice.

Gaston-I hate that guy..he can't read.

Marilla Cuthbert and Josie Pye from Anne of Green Gables

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Julia, this is a great post, even the second time around. :)

One character who I think about is from the movie, Leap Year. Amy Adams' friend, the jealous one, is a funny, snarky secondary character. I remember her because she's the opposite of the kind of friend I would want to have. So, I guess she's memorable in a bad way. :)

Loved this post.

Julia M. Reffner said...

@ Mary,

Haha, to demonstrate how tired I am I almost addressed you as Gaston in the comments. I must admit he is one you just love to hate. Disney is great at creating those.

@Jeanne, I haven't seen that movie, but I keep hearing about it. Thanks for stopping for a second time. Apologies for the repeat post, things have been a bit crazy lately.

Pepper said...

Love the post, Julia! And I always try to see my secondary characters as a possible hero/heroine in a future book. I think my strongest secondary characters might be the 'mentors'or 'best friends'.

Oh - and I absolutely love Dorie!!

Casey said...

Dorie is one of the BEST characters written. And I really liked the movie The Help. Really good characterization. :)