Many authors do a good job at developing their protagonist or POV characters. After all, readers will be in these characters’ heads throughout an entire book. But as many readers can attest to, sometimes the secondary characters become the favourites. There are many vivid secondary characters that I still think about years after meeting them in books, and sometimes I remember them more than the protagonists!
How can writers make their supporting characters feel real, understandable, and distinct from one another? Try these seven ways to develop secondary characters.
Determine the secondary character’s role in the story
Secondary characters occupy an interesting middle ground. They’re not directly driving the action like the protagonist or the antagonist, yet they’re not tertiary characters who fill out the world outside the plot. To me, secondary characters are just as key to the overarching story development as the main character. The only difference is, it’s not exactly their story. Think about people in your own life who were instrumental in major developments. It may have been your life and experience, but you can’t imagine that experience without those people being involved.
Similarly, think about how your secondary characters will influence your protagonist, the themes, or the plot. Will their role be a seemingly annoying voice of reason for your headstrong protagonist? Will they be more of a companion who helps the protagonist reach their goal? Will they help illuminate the message your story is exploring?
(Fun fact: a deuteragonist is a “secondary main character” who isn’t the protagonist, but who is second to the protagonist in importance and influence. Think Sam Gamgee, Jane Bennet, and Dr Watson.)
As an SF/F author, I find that character archetypes can be a helpful starting point – basic roles like the Ally, the Mentor, or the Jester (I love a good Jester) – but you can find examples of these archetypes across all genres. While some characters can fill more than one role, keep their main story purpose in mind as you flesh them out.
Create a strong backstory for secondary characters
Because oh yes, you have to flesh out all your secondary characters. This is the step that’ll help your supporting characters feel just as vivid as the protagonist. What brought your character to the story? What decisions made them the person they are today? If you could ask them why they’re in this story, what would they say?
There are many ways you can create a strong backstory for secondary characters. Personally, I like to take the basic role I created in step one and build out their values and thought processes through Dungeons & Dragons alignment. Additionally, my writing software has pre-built character sheets where I can fill in information like a character’s mannerisms, occupation, background, and internal and external conflicts. I give as much detail as I can about things like where my character was born, what their family life was like, and what secrets they hold. Most of this never overtly makes it on the page, but it helps give life to a character.
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Give them a “thing” outside of their role in the story
We’ve all had that experience where we see a certain item in a shop or hear a certain story and immediately tell a loved one, “this is so you.” What would cause the people in your secondary character’s life to do that? What’s your character doing, thinking, feeling when they’re off-page?
To me, a cast of characters feels alive when I can picture what they’re up to when they exit stage left, or when I can’t imagine any other character being the one to do a certain thing in a scene. As a writer, I know I’ve nailed it when a character’s dialogue flows without me having to pause and think about it.
Develop your secondary character’s unique voice
Step three’s unique differentiating points will also go a long way in helping readers tell your secondary characters apart. Use your character’s unique tone of voice, body language, and vocabulary to help them stand out from the others (without resorting to harmful stereotypes, of course). And as always, everything should be believable for the character.
Figure out how the character will change (if at all)
I’d love to go on a rant about the book review I read that stated a character was bad because they had no arc. Instead, I’ll say that whether it’s a positive, negative, or flat arc, they all have their function. Take, for example, Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. He faced challenges, he made mistakes, yet his values and beliefs never changed – and to me the story would feel weird without his stability and calm. He’s one of the most beloved characters in fantasy literature, and I consider his arc to be flat.
No matter what sort of arcs your characters will go through, be sure you have a handle on their goals, motivations, and personality.
Work out their relationships with other characters
Whether you’re writing a short story or a sprawling epic, your supporting characters will most likely interact with people other than the protagonist. How do they get along with other characters? Why? How will you show these relationships and their effect on the story?
Figuring out multi-character relationships will help your supporting characters feel like real people with unique thoughts and feelings. And if you’re writing a story that’s more character-driven than plot-driven, this is where you’ll shine.
Remember the character’s purpose
Nothing takes me out of a good story more than the thought, “Wait, why did that person do that?” Throughout the work, subtly remind the reader of a supporting character’s story purpose through their behaviour, speech, and interactions. Always ask yourself, “Is this the right character to do or say this?” If you’re finding it hard to differentiate between characters yourself or you feel like there are too many serving the same function, consider killing your darlings for the sake of a smaller, yet stronger, cast of secondary characters. Your overall story will most likely benefit!
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Samantha Garner is the author of The Quiet is Loud, shortlisted for the 2022 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. A Canadian of mixed Filipino-Finnish background, her character-driven fantasy novels explore themes of identity and belonging. When not writing, Samantha can be found daydreaming in a video game or boring a loved one with the latest historical fact she’s learned.
She can be found online at samanthagarner.ca and on Instagram and Twitter at @samanthakgarner.