Who Else: Writing Secondary and Minor Characters

 

by Morgan S. Hazelwood

 

Who Else Is There?

Writers know all about our main character–they’re the focus of our story. Often, the story is told in their voice.

But what about everyone else? Unless you’re writing a person-versus-nature like Hatchet, you’re probably going to have other characters.

 

Minor Characters

These are the people who fill your world. The merchants and crowds you pass on the streets. The lady handing you your receipt. The mooks you kill.

Minor characters and mooks are like furniture, they exist to boost plot or react to major characters.

Tip: Don’t make them cookie cutter stereotypes. If you have a default mental image, question it. Do they have to be male/female? A particular race? A certain age? Physically fit and neurotypical? If not, try to vary it up! The real world is full of variety and your world should be, too!

 

Some Go-To ‘Minor’ Characters

  • Offstage authority figure – explaining things to the boss is great for info dumps
  • Mothers
  • Love interests – or at least minor flirtations
  • Minor characters with scene stealing personality

When minor characters start resisting your intended plot/role for them, you’ve succeeded in making a strong mental model for them! They’re well on their way to becoming full-blown secondary characters!

 

Secondary Characters

Otherwise known as major-minor characters, these are your side kicks, your love interests, your besties, or your enemies (except your main villian).

 

What is a Secondary Character

  • They’re not a point-of-view (POV) character
    • Shorter stories should have fewer POV characters
    • Some suggest that each POV character adds 120 pages to your novel
  • They have enough screen time to deserve a name
    • Conversely, if you give them a name, you should do the work to make them true, 3-dimensional characters with backstories, hopes, and dreams
      • The hopes/dreams/backstories don’t need to be on screen, maybe they shouldn’t, but should inform the characters actions and reactions
  • They’re interesting and well-rounded enough to be qualified to have their own POV sequel.

 

4 Tips For Making Minor Characters Become Secondary Characters

  1. Make sure you do your homework, don’t make them 2-dimensional, stereotypical, support characters.
  2. Have a character bible so you can keep track of all the details you don’t need on paper (and the ones you do)
  3. Remember, just because you’re interested in everything about your world, doesn’t mean the reader is. Leave out as much as possible. (Leave room for your Secondary character to have her own book)
  4. Remember that their life keeps going, even when they’re not on the page

 

 

 

This post is based on notes from the “Writing Major Minor Characters” panel at #Balticon51. The panelists were Dr Claire McCague, John Walker, Jamaila Brinkley, SM (Steve) Stirling, and Mark Van Name (yes, that’s his real name).

Guest post contributed by Morgan Hazelwood. Morgan is currently working on the fantasy coming-of-age adventure Flesh and Ink. These days, when not writing, you can find her devouring book series on her kindle, hitting the gym, dressing up at local conventions, or feeding her web comic addiction. She also lends her voice to Anansi Storytelling – a radio-style podcast of folk tales from around the world.

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38 thoughts on “Who Else: Writing Secondary and Minor Characters”

  1. “Leave out as much as you can,” definitely a solid approach for secondary and minor characters. Many times I’ve had to remind myself that “While they all have a story, this isn’t their story.”

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I’m breaking the POV rule with my secondaries. I have quite a few and many have their back stories and character development well underway, some more than others. But the POV changes seems to work with what I’m writing. I don’t stick solely with the main characters for POV. Other authors who have successfully done this are Terry Prattchett and even Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings to a certain extent.
    Often I read books that stick entirely with the main characters for POV, and the telling gets awfully dull and tedious. There are good stories done in this way, but it varies. Bernard Cornwell is good at sticking to one main POV without the story feeling slow or dull. That’s his style and he’s good at it. But for me, I like changing POV. It works, it makes my world/s and story come alive with complexity. It drives the plot, often in directions that I didn’t even see coming, and for the better.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, and let’s not forget George R. R. Martin. His series are chapter pov’s, and I love the depth and dynamics it creates. I like getting lost in the different character’s stories. It’s not all just about the Starks, although they do feature rather prominently.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “Leave out as much as possible. (Leave room for your Secondary character to have her own book)”

    That’s how I’ve grown my world of Machine Civilization. A minor in The Fourth Law became a major. An ‘offscreen’ character came on; later, he’s a speaking role in my soon to be released “Defiant.”

    Another minor from T4L starred in her own children’s early reader, Henge’s Big Day!

    I find it to be a wonderful, organic process. Thanks for your article.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Having a side character that is as interesting than the hero can also be useful. I did this with a novel that I am trying to get e-published and ended up at the end of the story, having to write an ending for one character and an ending for the other. Supporting characters are very important and some times I think it can be good to have some that have almost as many dimensions to them as the hero themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Not a problem Mr Mcneese. Good luck. Another method I find useful is to try and keep a number of how many characters there are in the story altogether even if it is just a mental note. That can help you work out how and where they all fit together.

    Like

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