Writing Advice

Why Your Secondary Characters Are Important

Secondary characters provide you with a diverse cast of characters that have importance in their own right, as well as in helping to make your main characters better developed. It is therefore important to spend some time considering the role that your secondary characters play and to invest some energy into creating realistic secondary characters.

Let’s begin by examining secondary characters from a few successful YA books/films/TV series:

The Mortal Instruments:

  • Simon Lewis is the MC’s best friend who has unreciprocated feelings for her. What are the effects of this? The situation of the secondary character isn’t an unfamiliar one, and thus can be used to garner sympathy from the readers as many can understand how they are feeling. In addition, we, as the reader get to gain a greater insight into the context of the story as we can see how Clary Fray (MC) interacts with her best friend and how she remains oblivious to the fact that her best friend likes her. Nevertheless, Simon’s existence isn’t all revolved around Clary, as he gets the chance to develop and grow throughout the story, out from the shadow of the MC to become more independent. As such, this provides a further opportunity for the author to explore different story lines and subplots. Ultimately though, Simon’s character plays a complimentary role as he does his best to help the MC along her journey.

Harry Potter:

  • Cho Chang was Harry’s Potter’s love interest in the Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. She served as a reminder to the audience that although Harry holds the burden of saving the world upon his shoulders, he’s still a normal teenage boy, going through the emotions of adolescence. This contrast between a great responsibility and normality helps the reader to relate to the MC better and makes the MC more realistic.
  • Luna Lovegood was a secondary character who was made memorable due to her uniqueness and quirky personality. As such, she provided an interesting perspective to viewing life at Hogwarts and made the experience much more entertaining and interesting. Often, secondary characters have their own stories to tell, and with interesting characters, this provides the author with rich opportunities to interweave different subplots into the story which can be used to help the plot move along/ provide innovative solutions to possible plot problems.
  • Neville Longbottom acted a supporting character outside of the well-known ‘trio’, and gave a different perspective on the MC. Secondary characters can be used to illustrate how others perceive the MC and helps to reveal a lot about who they are as a person through your MC’s interactions with their secondary characters. We are able to see Harry’s kind-heartedness as he goes against Draco to get Neville’s Rememberall back. Secondary characters can have their own inner journey and outer journey and it is interesting to see how they all weave together. For example, from the beginning we see Neville be courageous and stand up against his friends; by the last novel, whilst Harry is away looking for Horcruxes, Neville has stepped up his game and mans Dumbledores’ Army. The characters’ plots meet in the epic finale to work towards a successful outcome: ultimately the demise of Voldemort.

Hunger Games:

  • Finnick Odair is one of the most lovable secondary characters in the Hunger Games, he proves to be a reliable ally for Katniss and has his own love story and tragic backstory in which he trades himself for secrets in the Capital. As such, secondary characters can be used to flesh out your story world as we can see how the system has affected his life. Secondary characers can be used to see how a regime/villain has affected others, to illustrate that their devastating effects are more wide reaching than just antagonising the MC. Furthermore, getting to know your secondary characters turns them from being just a statistic to being an individual story. This creates a more realistic portrayal of reality and it creates a social support network for the MC who isn’t isolated. As we become more familiar with the secondary characters, we develop a bond with them and this enhances your family of characters. Secondary characters provides you with the opportunity to be illustrate complex human relationships that are not limited to just one person. Just like how different people come and go in our lives, secondary characters can leave their footprints behind with the MC by teaching them something new, altering a perspective, evoking an emotional change in the MC. Similarly, whilst other people may have lasting effects on us, the reverse is also true, your MC can have an effect on a multitude of lives.

Secondary characters provide a comparison with the MC and provide an insight into what could have been had your MC taken a different path. For example, Finnick’s ‘glamourous’ lifestyle in the Capital illustrates what Katniss could have had if she hadn’t forced the Capital’s hand in allowing two people to live in the Hunger Games. As a whole, secondary characters provide opportunity to illustrate different lifestyles and paths that can occur in your fictional world. You can show what the different roles that were expected at the time were in the society of the time or era that your story is set. They can be used to highlight a social hierarchy that may exist, and the different cultures and traditions that may exist in your story world. This allows you to explore additional avenues in your storytelling.

Vampire Diaries (TV series):

  • Alaric Saltzman acts as Elena and Jeremy’s guardian. To them and to the audience he is viewed as a source of wisdom, we feel a sense of security when he is around. This can be used effectively for example, in a dire situation we would lose hope when they don’t know what to do. Secondary characters provide variety through a range of ages, they would have different skill sets, different levels of knowledge and types of wisdom that can be used to make the story richer.
  • Bonnie Bennett is Elena’s best friend and skilled with magical abilities, she has a special place in Damon Salvatore’s heart. Damon finds it difficult to get on with other people and has an even tougher time displaying his affections, whether in love or in friendship. However, as their relationship develops, Bonnie can bring out the best in Damon and we can see that he has the capacity to care when he tries his best to save her. Secondary characters can therefore be used to highlight different aspects of the MC’s personality. They can act as a call to action for the MC; a driver to get them to face their fears or to stand up to their enemies. Secondary characters present the MC with someone to defend, or someone to betray them.

Secondary characters can also be used to highlight flaws of the MC, for example, even though Damon and Bonnie could be loosely described as friends, Damon isn’t afraid to abuse that relationship and he tries to force Bonnie into using her magic to help him.

Secondary characters can illustrate how a person of great responsibility, for example a king; has power over his people through his interactions with them e.g. his loyal subjects, his enemies, his lover, his people. Recently, I was introduced to a Chinese-Taiwanese Historical Drama called the Prince of Lan Ling (surprisingly a very enjoyable experience, especially the first half of the series!). One of the key characters in this was the second male lead, the King of Zhou who in order to be an effective leader often hides his emotions and vulnerability. However, his niece (a secondary character) who is very sick but well-loved by him illustrates the different components to the king’s personality. He will do anything to try and make her feel better and through her character we are able to see the generosity and kindness of the king. He plays with children and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. They share many endearing moments and he allows her to call him Pony. The audience is able to see a completely different side to him: underneath his cold facade, is a warm beating heart.

In conclusion, secondary characters make your story become multifaceted and more than one dimensional. They create a supportive network for the main characters, but they are also important in their own way. It is good to see their own development throughout the story although this must not overshadow that of the main characters. They are important in defending the main characters, and helping the MC to form opinions and make decisions.

A good exercise to do would be to reflect upon your favourite secondary characters in books, TV and films to see what role they play in the overarching story. What do they contribute to the story?

– Elizabeth 

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