01 October 2015

Secondary Characters, Primary Purpose, Part Two

by Brian Thornton

(Part One of this subject can be found here.)

 Two weeks ago I began to delve into the importance of secondary characters, wherein I summed up with a series of questions and concluded with a promise:

I have been thinking of this sort of thing quite a bit lately, as I toil on my current Work-In-Progress. How do I make my secondary characters more organic? More believable? Less stock? How do I ensure that everyone who appears in my work serves a vital purpose, and isn't just some guy putting watermelons in a crate, or one of a couple of guys carrying a plate glass window back and forth across a street?

I have some answers, and I'll share them next week. If you've got ideas, drop them in the comment section, and I'll share them with the rest of the class in my next blog post in two short weeks.

The calendar confirms that it's a full two weeks later, and I'm gonna take its word for that, because it's September, and during this month, my day gig (teacher) keeps me hopping like Frogger crossing a highway, and I tend to be somewhat organizationally challenged.

That tiny, frantic flash of green you see in the screen capture above? Me in September.

And on that note, let's delve into secondary characters, what they are. what they aren't, and how you can use them to make your work better.

At best, a secondary character is a thumbnail. At worst, an iceberg.

Yup, this guy again.
Let's be clear what I'm talking about when I say "secondary characters." I am referring neither to what the theatre and film industries refer to as "supporting leads," nor to the sorts of stock characters who get a "walk-on" in your book, with maybe a line or two before making their exit, stage right.

I mean the ones who have enough screen time to be impactful, without being either protagonist, antagonist, or some sort of secondary lead. This can literally be a cast of thousands. It's easy to get lost in this sea of faces.

So how to make full, effective use of them?

My friend and colleague David Corbett says (I am paraphrasing here, not quoting, so forgive the inexact nature of the statement) that it's a mistake to think of the secondary characters in your novel (or the primary ones, for that matter) as existing independent of the work.

That makes so much sense to me that it effectively trumps all counterarguments save one: Noted critic and literary snob Harold Bloom has famously remarked that the character of Prince Hamlet in Shakespeare's play of the same name is so large, so fleshed out and so impactful, that he literally transcends the play (especially when Nicol Williamson, arguably the greatest film Hamlet EVER, plays him).

Greatest. Hamlet. Ever. And he wasn't half bad as Merlin a decade later in John Boorman's Excalibur.
Bloom is right.

Literary Sage/Crank Harold Bloom
But the melancholy Dane is the exception. And there's certainly never been a secondary character who so transcended the work of art that framed him.

For the rest of us (and this is especially true of secondary characters), they're one with their setting, appear when where and how they appear in order to suit the dictates of the author's plot/action. They do what they do not because it's in their best interests to do so, or because they're addicted to the actions in question. They don't do them because they love gay marriage or hate the color yellow.

They do the things they do in service to the story.




I realize there is a large and accomplished corner of the greater writing universe who embrace the notion of their characters having lives of their own, and doing things like whispering in the ears of the authors who created them. I've heard them speak at personal appearances and at conferences. I understand where they're coming from.

It does nothing to change the simple, immutable fact that characters do not exist outside of story.

That realization can be freeing. I know it certainly was for me once I came to it. When I heard Corbett say it out loud, he was only confirming for me what I had already worked out for myself.

And I repeat for emphasis: It was so freeing!

Now, before you start saying, "Wait a minute, what about believability? Continuity? What about making it realistic?

The maxim of service of the story takes care of all of that.

This is especially true for secondary characters.

Uberagent and successful writing guru Donald Maas has a thing he does where he has workshop denizens write down a series of observations about their characters: "What is your character's favorite color? Now write down a secret they've kept all their lives. What was the first job they ever had?" And so on.

As an exercise in fleshing out characters it is pretty effective.

And if you do it with secondary characters you'll waste time and drive yourself half out of your own skull.

That begs the question: how do we as writers give our secondary characters life without investing the sort of time/effort we do in our more fully fleshed out characters?

The answer in two weeks, when I wrap up this topic with "Secondary Characters, Primary Purpose, Part Two"!

Until then....


  1. The main characters are your family; secondary characters are friends and/or enemies. The people you want to check in with, call up, hang out with, or those people that just get on your nerves. Emotionally/mentally important enough for you to think about. The kind of people you know when you just see them walking down the street. Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet: not a main character, but when he gets killed, it hurts.

  2. Nicely said, Eve.

  3. What Eve said.

    And your analogies in parts 1 and 2 are terrific.


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