Happy new year to all!
November 2, 2013, Kenzi Anne wrote about her difficulty with secondary characters: Usually I get pretty unique main characters that I feel satisfied with, but I feel like the secondary characters in every one of my stories fit the same mold–like I plop the same character into four different stories and just change the looks. “This is the funny one,” or “this is the brooding one,” or “this is the one that has trust issues and betrays everybody else.” I guess I feel like all of my secondary characters are cliche. When I tried to make them unique, they became too main. How do I make secondary characters interesting and unique, while still keeping them secondary?
Elisa suggested that giving quirks to secondary characters can help distinguish them, and J. Garf wrote, I used to have that problem too, until I started thinking about people I really know. Think about your friends. What makes them different from everyone else? Maybe one of them is really tall. Maybe another only has a sense of humor when it comes to horses or hot air balloons. Maybe one enjoys math and is a total nerd…. I have one character who was the standard, funny and supportive secondary character, and it didn’t take me very long to realize that he was way cliched. So, I edited him and made him seem different from the very beginning. He is part of a group of men that has to be very strong, which he is, but I made him really short for a man. He now has one of those odd personalities that’s so positive that you have a hard time believing that they’re serious, which would be weird if he was the main but he’s just a secondary, so it just makes him interesting. He’s very friendly, immediately. He’s still supporting, and is the funny one, but he’s different enough to make him a unique character. Just make sure that you don’t give too much detail, or too much uniqueness if you want to keep the character secondary.
These are interesting ideas. Something along the lines of J. Garf’s suggestion comes up in Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, a book I found helpful when I started writing. As an exercise, Brande has her reader think of a story she knows well and plug into one of the main characters a real person she also knows well and imagine the result. I thought of Pride and Prejudice and my sister as Elizabeth. In my imaginings my sister would find Darcy way too stuffy. The story would have to find a new direction.
This technique works equally well with secondary characters, and your story doesn’t have to be derailed in the process. Think, for example, of “Snow White.” We have a rich cast of secondaries here in the hunter and the seven dwarfs. Try this prompt: Pick three of the dwarfs and the hunter. Think of four people you know and endow the characters with their personalities. The real four don’t all have to be male. Neither do the dwarfs or the hunter, for that matter. The four are walking through a forest and discussing what to do about Snow White, how to protect her, how to keep her occupied and happy, what the hunter should tell the evil queen. In the middle of the discussion some crisis arises, which could be exterior, like a bear, or interior, like a disagreement–or both. Let your characters show themselves as they would in real life. Be sure to include dialogue. For example, one of the dwarfs could be a person I know who says everything more than once. The dwarf who stands in for her would do the same, and might get interrupted by another dwarf who’s impatient and a tad rude. In the exchange they will each distinguish themselves for the reader and as the scene progresses the reader will be able to pick out each one.
Obviously, we can use this technique on any secondaries who’ve entered our story with nothing more than a stereotype.
I love quirks for secondary characters, who often don’t have to have the depth of mains. They can be all quirks, sometimes just one. For example, I was able to nail King Lionel in The Two Princesses of Bamarre just from his habit of consulting The Book of Homely Truths whenever he has to make a decision or respond to someone. Or in Fairest the library-keeper speaks mostly in book titles.
Often, secondary characters can be as peculiar as we want to make them because the reader isn’t likely to identify with them as much as with our MCs. The reader won’t see herself in the secondary. And they don’t have to carry the full weight of the plot, either. We can fool around. So, for example, Kenzi Anne’s brooding character–let’s call him Hamletti–doesn’t have to worry about ordinary problems, like personal failures or relationships. He can stress out over the danger of plankton eating their way out of the ocean and becoming an invasive terrestrial species, and he can be really despondent over this. If he’s sympathetic, the reader can pity him.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem to have more than one story with a secondary who has trust issues–as long as the reasons are different and the manifestations are, too. For example, maybe Johanna, when she feels threatened, retreats into long sessions of Monopoly, playing in her imagination against the person who’s frightened her. But Thomas expresses his fear by writing long letters to the editor of the local newspaper.
I like to make lists of possibilities in my notes. It could go like this: Why does Johanna mistrust?
1. Her parents lied to her about what happened to her puppy.
2. She went to sleep when she was eight in her own bedroom and woke up stretched across two seats in a bus bound for Pittsburgh.
3. The first time she tasted tofu she lost her hearing for a week.
And so on. Maybe whenever a new character meets her, Johanna feels obliged to tell her sad history as a way to protect herself.
If our secondaries threaten to take over our story it may not be because they’re too interesting. More likely it’s because we’re giving them too much stage time. The thrust of the story, the major problems belong to our MCs. The secondaries appear once or intermittently. To keep them from stealing the show, we need to remember what the main problem is and how our MCs are approaching it.
But, if we do fall in love with Johanna and want to tell her story, well, we can change our mind. Or we can finish this story and write a sequel about her.
Here are five prompts:
• List five more reasons for Johanna’s trust issues.
• List eight ways Johanna shows her mistrust.
• List seven other reasons that Hamletti finds to fuel his despondency.
• Both, Johanna and Hamletti, are persuaded by friends to go ice skating. Have them collide, meet, and set each other off. Write what follows.
• Make Johanna and Hamletti into dwarfs in “Snow White.” Write a scene with the two of them and Snow White, but keep Snow White and her problem central to the scene. They’re preparing her, because they suspect the queen is going to show up, and they want her to survive, but their advice is filtered through their own quirky perspectives.
Have fun, and save what you write!
  1. Great post, as always! I agree with J. Garf, using friends and family as basis for characters is something that I end up doing a lot. Sometimes, it makes for interesting situations. I actually ended up finding out the other day that my eye doctor, who I had never met up until that point, had a personality that was exactly like one of my characters! Now, that character has my eye doctor's way of speaking as well, since it fits him. Another time, I was working on my MC's backstory (I wrote flashbacks for my personal reference), and when it came time to kill off two of her favorite cousins (and it absolutely had to happen), I suddenly realized that I had unknowingly based the two characters on two of MY favorite cousins!

    On a sort of related topic, I was wondering if anyone had any advice on how to incorporate complicated backstories into the main story. My MC was actually born (and lived for a long time) a couple hundred years before the main story takes place. (She isn't from a long lived species or anything, she was in a magical coma-thingy, for lack of a better word.) So, while there are some characters of a long lived species who know what's going on, neither the reader or most of the characters know much about her. Some of what happened caused her to have PTSD, so a bit will come through in nightmares. As for the rest of it, flashbacks haven't worked so far, and I'm having trouble with the rest. I would love any suggestions anyone's got!

    • Something similar keeps happening with my cousins. I named some characters Sera, Lara, and Skyler-only to remember I had a Sarah, Laura, and Skylar in my family. And whenever I create a mother character she's always a little like my mom. Maybe because she's my very definition of mother so I'm subconsciously pulling character traits from her?
      On backstory-focus on the parts that are important to the plot and bring them up when it makes sense. Don't worry if you can't include anything. Also, dialogue's a good tool if you don't want huge info dumps. Compare these two:

      I bent over to pick up the book. The scar on my lower back where I'd been injured by the king's sword throbbed. I winced, hoping Bob wouldn't notice.

      I bent over to pick up the book and winced.
      "What's wrong?" Bob asked.
      "Old injury," I said dismissively.
      He narrowed his eyes. "Did you get that in battle?"

  2. Great post! I've had a lot of success with using elements of real people for secondary characters. Secondary characters seem to be easier than main characters for me though. Perhaps it's because I often write in 1st person. It seems like it's harder to get my MC to have a distinct personality.
    Another thing that has helped me with secondary characters is to think of them as comparing or contrasting with the main character in some. Like if MC does A, the secondary does B.
    As for backstory, I like Eliza's suggestion. I think if you can work it into the action, bit by bit, that works well. I often have my characters have something happen that reminds them of the backstory, so it's parsed out in their thoughts.

    • I'm with Jenni in that my secondary characters are easier to make unique than my mains. With the secondary people, I'm free to give them a wacky personality or a hilarious sense of humor or just a mysterious 'cool factor' that doesn't come as easily in writing main characters. Like Mrs. Levine said, we need our MC's to be identifiable, so they usually can't be too weird. 🙂

  3. What's a good way to come up with figures of speech? There are things we all say every day, and I feel like a few of these add color to a story, but some expressions just don't make sense. For example, you can't exactly say "what on earth is that?" if your story doesn't take place on earth. Another good one that doesn't work is "holy cow!" I use this one all the time in daily speech but can't in my book because it originated because of Hindu's believes that cows are sacred, and since my book is fantasy this religion doesn't exist on my fantasy world. There are dozens of other things that we say all the time because of where we live or how we've grown up, and I feel like fictional characters should have these too. Any ideas?

    • First off, thank you so much for your post, Mrs. Levine!! It helped me so much!! I've reanalyzed a bunch of my secondary characters, and they actually flow!!! I'm just a little (lot) giddy with happiness 🙂

      J. Garf: I know exactly what you mean!! I like to make up figures of speech for fantasy characters; a lot of times it depends on the character using them. If, say, I have a humorous, innocent, and/or lighthearted character, I might have them say "Snarks and snizzles!" because it sounds silly and is absolute nonsense. Also, alliteration tends to make the phrases a little more catchy, which a lot of the phrases we use are. My personal forte is fairytale retelling, and often times I like go back to the language that the original is told in (usually German, though it may be easier for me to use this because I'm minoring in it), and use words from the language so that they sound "real" and can have meaning. If you're not using fairytales, I'd suggest thinking of the kinds of things that make up the phrases we use. For example, people often would swear "by the king" or, as in Harry Potter, "by Merlin's beard!" (That one has always stuck with me for some reason). But it makes sense for wizards to mention a wizard that everyone would know, and who is often depicted with a long white beard.
      We tend to use very important things in culture that most people living in said culture would recognize, like how the Hindus believed cows were sacred, so saying "holy cow" in the Hindu culture made sense. Taking elements/motifs/taboos/etc. from the culture you've created can help you to make phrases that coincide with your world. 🙂 I hope this helped!! Also, sorry this is kind of long!!

    • I suggest using the culture as your basis for interjections and figures of speech. For example, I'm writing a fantasy book where dragons once existed, but are now are extinct. So when one of my characters swears, she says "Dragon's dung!" instead of our equivalent to "BS!" If it takes place somewhere other than earth, instead of "What on earth?" have them say something like "What on Crux?" or "By the galaxy!" or something like that. This is one of those things where you can get crazy and have fun, while at the same time making your world a little richer and deeper.

    • Exactly, all y'all, also though, some people have speech mannerisms distinctly unique to them. I have a lot of odd speech mannerisms and some of them are entirely my own (Which is mostly because I like to invent words). For example:
      Normal-er things I say:
      Fiddles and Fifes.
      Fiddlesticks and Fishfur
      Dolly Madison
      All y'all

      Some things that I'm pretty sure are unique family sayings:
      You're not the brightest hole in the bucket
      Every Stuff (everything, every stuff, same difference)
      Sozer (Shortened version of so there)
      's crazy or 's weird. (It's with the It chopped off)

      Things I'm pretty sure I'm the only one crazy enough to say:
      Blather Shnazzle
      Iyaki (Pronounced: EE, yah, KEY)
      Oh Charming
      Honestly (Pronounced Hah, nest, LEE)
      Yes, I am odd.

  4. Hi, Ms. Levine! This has nothing to do with your post, unfortunately, but it's still good news! Mark Reads, a reviewer of books by chapter, is reading Ella Enchanted! He started January 10, and is reading two chapters every day excluding weekends, and so will finish February 8. It's not a recap really, but his thoughts on the chapters. It's wonderful, and I highly encourage you to check it out.

  5. Does anyone have ideas on how to keep things from getting over- complicated? Perhaps there's already a post I'm missing? I feel like I get so far into my story that I get stuck and can never get back out of it to figure out an ending without everything seeming abrupt.

    • Pace the ending like the plot. If you have a slow, thoughtful kind of book don't wrap everything in up two pages. But if it's fast paced don't drag it out forever. You don't need to tie up all the loose ends, it's ok to leave stuff ambiguous, but answer the big questions.
      Decide what your story's core conflict is. Make a list of all the subplots and characters and how they relate to it. Is there someone who really doesn't need to be there? Do your characters wander into Subplot Land for several scenes without discussing the core conflict? If it doesn't directly tie into your story's core and you can't tweak it, it doesn't need to be there.

  6. If you are having problems with over complication, I suggest you look up Megan Whalen Turner's books, but especially "The Thief". She is excellent at twists, and complicated turns. I think anyone over the age of twelve should be able to read them, though her characters do swear some. My eleven year old sister reads books by Ms. Turner and loves them.

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