Tuesday, March 19, 2013

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 Library Journal, The Title Trakk, and Christian Library Journal.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Great post Julia! I love great secondary characters. One of my favorites is the little lizard/dragon in Mulan! Makes me laugh all the time. I also love the 2 detectives in Castle that help Beckett and Castle with their cases. They crack me up!

Debra E. Marvin said...

very well said, Julia. The secondary character is a mirror for a protagonist in many ways. Even if he/she/it is a comic character.
Because... that protagonist is hiding something or believing a lie and someone needs to shake it loose.

I hope we can get together this summer, Julia! I miss you!

Pepper said...

FANTASTIC post, Jules. I love my secondary characters because I KNOW I'll see them again in another book!!
Jane and Bingley
Mrs. Potts and Lumiere
Sebastian the Crab ;-)
Lady Violet Crawley...good heavens, I LOVE her personality!!!
Patrick and Marcy O'Connor in Julie's novel serieses

So memorable and loveable and NECESSARY!!! Great reminders, Jules.

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Great post, Jules! I love a strong and quirky secondary cast. Right now, the book I am working on features my secondary man, comic-relief goof off as the hero. So fun to be able to dive in to his story, peel away those layes and discover the treasure beneath the surface of the sidekick. :)

We can't forget about Mater. He sure steals Lightning's thunder. Pun intended. ;)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Mater!!!!!!!!!!! Amy, I love Mater!!!

Ooooohhh, how about the horse in Tangled! He is hilarious!

Pepper said...

Max, Sherrinda!!
And I love Mater too. LOL. Sounds like he lived in my neck of the wounds

Julia M. Reffner said...

Great choices, SHERRINDA. I love those 2 detectives, too, and I always forget their names.

DEBRA, I would love to get together this summer. We're not too far apart, keep me posted.

PEPPER, I love when we get to see the good secondary characters as the stars!! Oh, yes, and Violet...my FAVORITE on DA.

AMY, YES, yes, Mater is the highlight of Cars for sure.

Ruth Douthitt said...

Fun post, Julia!!

Great reminder to add more to my secondary characters. I am in the process of writing a thriller for middle school kids with a gang of 12 year olds trying to solve a murder mystery.

Now I will go back and add more to the secondary characters to make it more FUN!

Great advice.

I think a most memorable secondary character for me is the cockroach in WALL-E. Leave it to Disney/Pixar to make a cockroach adorable and cute! LOL!

Julia M. Reffner said...

OOoh, your book sounds great, right up the alley of my almost 8-year-old daughter who loves Encyclopedia Brown. Can't wait to hear more :)