Secondary characters can often make or break a story.
Think of all the books you’ve read and shows you’ve watched. How many of those stories featured your favorite character as the main character?
Personally, I can’t think of too many.
Oftentimes, my favorite character plays a supporting role and gets less screen time or “page time”.
For example, one of my favorite movies is Fantastic Mr. Fox by Wes Anderson. The main character is the titular Mr. Fox, obviously, but my favorite character is Ash.
Ash is Mr. Fox’s son who has no vital role in the main story, only stepping in at times to help further Mr. Fox’s goals.
But I love Ash so much because he’s… *random hand gestures* different. He’s grumpy, dismissive, and always itching to be seen despite his lack of competency.
As with many secondary characters, Ash participates in a subplot where he has his own character arc and learns to become a better person… er, fox.
While he may not be a believable character in the sense that you feel like you could walk by a talking fox on the street that wears a cap and pants tucked into his socks, Ash carries all the weight of a fully realized character.
That’s one of the main goals when writing a secondary character. Often, You can tell the caliber of writer by looking at the story’s supporting characters.
Join that level of writing by learning the secrets behind crafting extraordinary secondary characters!
What Makes for Outstanding Secondary Characters?
One of the hardest things in life is also the hardest part of writing: balance.
Finding the proper balance of everything can feel like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with a flamethrower.
A great supporting cast is built on and requires learning to balance. Luckily, balancing these characters is one of the easiest forms of balance, and you don’t even have to use a flamethrower, which is good because they’re hard to come across.
So balance is the key to a good supporting character, but what does that mean? What do you have to balance?
The first step to finding the proper balance of your secondary characters is to first just make them different from your main character.
If you only learn one thing from this article, it’s to make your characters different.
If your secondary characters look, act, and think like your main character, your readers will have a terrible time trying to distinguish anyone.
(For help with making your characters unique, try this article.)
Now that you’ve germinated the idea of creating a cast of distinct characters, the balancing can begin.
Think about the characteristics of your main character(s).
Are they funny? Are they serious? Are they sensitive?
The characteristics you think of for your main character should be more demeanor-based and how they view the world.
Let’s go back to Mr. Fox. He’s headstrong, competent, pretty serious, and driven.
When creating secondary characters in this story, you want to make sure that they balance out Mr. Fox’s personality. You don’t need to have minor characters for every single character trait, but you should have secondary characters to balance the primary personality traits of the main character.
So, to balance Mr. Fox’s gravitas, Wes Anderson provided the secondary character Kylie.
Kylie forgets often, has a poor sense of time, and lacks any sort of self confidence.
You couldn’t attribute any of these traits to Mr. Fox which makes Kylie an entirely different character.
But he’s not just a different character for its own sake, he plays many important roles in the story. He provides comic relief, pokes holes in Mr. Fox’s veneer, falls under Mr. Fox’s charm, and mediates conflict.
Not every secondary character can be a total foil to the protagonist, otherwise your secondary characters would begin feeling the same too.
Let’s look at another minor character: Kristofferson.
Cousin Kristofferson shares some qualities with Mr. Fox. He’s confident and competent. But where Mr. Fox may take these traits to the extremes and boost his ego, Kristofferson’s reserved bearing reveals his humility.
Not only is Kristofferson more humble, he also presents his emotional maturity and ability to call things as they are.
Mr. Fox is dramatic and self-aggrandizing. Kristofferson is kind and realistic.
Even though he totes similar qualities, Kristofferson is a strong secondary characters because he shows a mastery of some of Mr. Fox’s faults.
Kristofferson serves as a sort of Platonic ideal of what Mr. Fox should be. We don’t see much of a change in Kristofferson’s arc, making him a static character, but he still helps the story in plenty of ways. Plus, he knows karate.
So two traits of a great supporting character are uniqueness and balance. If you can master characters with these two characteristics, you can master secondary characters.
Deciding How to Fit in Your Supporting Cast
So you know a bit about what makes a good supporting character, but then comes the question “Well, how many should I include? Can I just throw them in all willy nilly?”
The answer to both questions is “Uhhh, maybe…”
Every story has different needs, and deciding how many and what kind of secondary characters will depend largely on the scope of your tale and the characteristics of your protagonist.
Reading a story (especially if it’s a novel) with only one character and no secondary characters is extremely rare.
But I can think of plenty of stories, especially short stories, that only have a few characters in addition to the protagonist.
These thinly casted tales typically don’t have the makings of an epic, thousand page book. They instead choose to focus on a single protagonist with a supporting cast of one or two minor characters.
If you find yourself writing such a story, you’ll notice that writing secondary characters becomes quite a non-issue.
Most of the time you’ll just fit in these characters as a few lines of dialogue to help your protagonist find their way.
But once you begin to broaden the scope of your story, odds are you’ll need to include more characters.
Our recommendation is to bring characters when space is required. Deciphering how much space your story has can prove tricky, but a good baseline is seen in dialogue.
If you find that you’re going five or more pages without much dialogue, you might have too few of characters.
If your book consists only of dialogue, you’re pushing on the avant garde and could simply include more exposition or remove some characters.
Is it possible to have too many supporting characters?
Certainly, but I think it’s quite difficult, given that the reader doesn’t spend much time (if any) in their heads. Most of a reader’s time will follow the thoughts and actions of the protagonist(s).
Secondary characters will typically push your story forward and they don’t need to have as much of a character arc as more main plot characters.
That being said, when you write these characters well enough, the audience will understand their motivations, strengths, and weaknesses to the point where they learn to love them in a short amount of time.
I’d say you only have too many secondary characters when you’re unable to fulfill the promises you make with them.
If you somehow bring them into the main plot with a promise of something like a redemption arc or grand resolution, then bring in ten more similar events, you might have too long of a book on your hands.
It’s far easier to have too many protagonists and antagonists than it is to have supporting characters.
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Secondary characters can breathe life into your story and present the audience with some of the most memorable characters.
By having engaging secondary characters, you can easily take your writing to the next level. After all, one of the best ways to test the caliber of an author is to see how they handle their secondary characters.
You can create great secondary characters by making sure that they’re unique and they balance the personality traits of your protagonist. Also, make sure they’re excellent characters in general by reading this article.
Finally, decide how many secondary characters your story needs by figuring out your story’s “space”.
For enough vibrancy, you want to make sure your character isn’t just walking through an endless wasteland (unless that’s the primary goal of your story).
Remember that even Cast Away has characters before and after so the stakes feel higher. They also include an inanimate object who reaches our hearts and shows us that secondary characters can and should be fun.
Don’t worry too much about including a large cast of secondary characters. Just make sure that the reader can follow the story.
With all that in place, you should be ready to write incredible stories with characters that engage your readers.
Pay attention the next time you’re reading to see how the author includes and uses secondary characters. Pay special attention to anyone given a name and observe how they’re handled within the larger context of the story.
For more helpful tips, check out the other articles on our Habit Writing blog!
gavinwrideGavin is a fantasy author, short story enthusiast, and nature lover. When he’s not reading, writing, or exploring the outdoors, he is likely playing games. His board game collection is probably too big for someone living in a small apartment, and he has enough yet-to-be-played video games to fill a lifetime. His favorite book is "The Name of the Wind". His favorite author is Edward Abbey. His favorite game is "Dark Souls III", and he’d be more than happy to spend the day talking about lore, bosses, and game mechanics.
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