When discussing character writing, most people default to talking about their main character. And, obviously, you want the person your reader spends the most time with to be engaging so that they keep reading.
But that doesn’t mean you should neglect—or forget your—secondary characters. These add depth and colour to the world your main character lives in, helping to make it more memorable.
Sometimes, these characters end up becoming even more popular than your protagonist!
Since secondary characters are all protagonists in their own story, it’s common for writers to spin off popular characters into their own stories. Take Angel from Buffy, Neely Kate from Rose Gardner Mysteries/Investigations, or Hollywood Gossip from my What Happens in… series.
Readers often get attached to worlds just as much as they do characters, which is another reason spinoffs can be popular. Plus, from a writing point of view, they’re much easier to create than something new because you’ve already done the world building and character building required to get started.
What are secondary characters?
A secondary character is someone who plays a significant role in your book(s), but your plot doesn’t revolve around them. They probably get dragged into it by your main character, though.
Subplots usually revolve around secondary characters, too.
Ron and Hermione are both secondary characters from the Harry Potter books, and over the course of the series have many of their own plots. Hermione’s Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (SPEW) is an example of this, along with Ron’s argument with Harry, and Ron and Hermione’s romance.
Luke Danes from Gilmore Girls is another secondary character. Lorelai couldn’t live without her daily coffee fix from his diner, or the advice he gives. He’s also present for many big events in the Gilmore girls’ lives, and has subplots around redecorating the diner, his sister’s wedding, and looking after his nephew.
Why do secondary characters matter?
Secondary characters not only offer your protagonist someone to talk to, but they also bring your story to life. They can provide comic relief in a tense scene, or do the opposite and increase the tension.
A secondary character may come in the form of a mentor, offering information to a character when they need it, or in the form of a love interest, best friend, colleague, relative…pretty much any character type can be a secondary character.
Since subplots often revolve around secondary characters, you can also use these subplots to mirror the main plot and add depth to it.
For example, if you’re writing a mystery, your main character could fall out with their friend/love interest/mentor that’s trying to help them solve the mystery. That person returns later, with information that helps move the main plot along. This subplot develops their relationship and builds on the mystery.
How do you write secondary characters?
Ah, there’s the question.
It’s super easy to get caught up in how to write a character. You end up spending so long planning the minutiae that when it comes time to sit down and write, you’ve lost energy and enthusiasm for your project.
If this is you, my suggestion is to just sit down and write. So long as you have a basic plot, the rest will evolve as you write.
However, if you’re like me and need something a little more, my suggestion is this: get to know them as well as your protagonist.
Just because the plot of your novel doesn’t revolve around them, that doesn’t mean their life is less important. They’re still human, after all. They have hopes and wants and dreams and fears just the same as anyone else. Your story will be more interesting if your secondary character(s) are working towards their goals alongside your main character.
Let’s use a romance novel as an example for a moment. Quite often, the subplot is that of a friend getting married. The main character could be the maid of honour, but be terrible at it. So, alongside what’s going wrong in their romance, they risk messing up their best friend’s, too. All their best friend wants is to have a stress-free wedding. But your main character is awful at organising things, and chaos ensues.
The wedding subplot can also give you a range of different settings for things to go wrong for your main character, such as a boozy hen do or problems with the venue. This makes the setup of your novel more interesting than having everything happen at work or in typical date settings, like restaurants.
Your secondary character’s subplot should tie into the main story somehow, or it won’t help to flesh out what’s actually happening. This is why romance is a common subplot—it adds depth to characters and a level of relatability, regardless of the genre you write in. After all, everyone wants to be loved.
All this being said, don’t overthink your secondary character’s arc. It shouldn’t overshadow your main character’s.
Quite often, once you know your main arc, you’ll know what external events need to happen to enhance or expand it.
Remember, though: don’t add in subplots for the sake of it. Every scene should work for its place.
What doesn’t matter when creating characters
When you’re getting to know any character, the last things that matter are what they look like, what their likes are, or what their dislikes are.
What matters are their role in the story, their association with your protagonist, and how they work with—or against—your protagonist.
Once you know this information, you can flesh them out, adding in personality traits that complement or contrast with your main character. Maybe even both!
Who they are and what they want will always be much more important than what they look like.
However, you can use someone’s appearance to show the reader more about them. A character dressed in scruffy clothes that are two-sizes too big could be depressed; someone who’s recently lost weight and doesn’t know how to dress for their new shape; someone who doesn’t care about their appearance, or someone who can’t afford new clothes.
Aesthetic details are more interesting when they flesh out your character’s backstory and state of mind, rather than when they’re included for the sake of it.
Most people won’t remember what your characters look like anyway—they’ll remember the connection they had with them when they read your book.
Secondary characters shouldn’t be forgotten; they add depth to your main character and the world they live in. Depending on how you write them, they could even become more popular than your main character and warrant their own spinoff.
They’re great for comic relief during tense situations, or for increasing tension in important scenes.
Their place within the story should be tied to the protagonist’s arc, and may include a subplot related to it. The subplot could be in the form of a romance, seeking revenge, solving the same mystery for difference reasons, career aspirations—anything you want, really. So long as it doesn’t overshadow—or become more interesting than—your main plot.
Everyone is the protagonist in their own story. It’s only fair that you treat your secondary characters that way.
Shoutout to Silvia Lopez for the blog post idea! Got a topic you’d like me to cover? Let me know in the comments!
Over to You
How do you approach writing your secondary characters? I’d love to hear about your process in the comments!