Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Secondary Characters

It occurred to me that I should be more specific about what part of the novel writing process we're in right now.

We've spent the last couple weeks talking about our main character. This is a part of the process I refer to as composting. Which is a term I stole from my writer friend, Erica Vetsch, and which I'm pretty sure she stole from Randy Ingermanson, aka The Snowflake Guy. I don't know if Randy's the originator or not.

Regardless, composting is that time when the story is starting to gel in your head, when you're working out who these people are and what's going to happen to them.

I think composting is one of my favorite parts of the process ... but I'll likely say that about everything on here. I like all of it.

Let's talk for a bit about secondary characters.

How many characters are too many? Too few? There's no industry standard for this. It's just a feel. And sometimes you "feel" wrong. (When my original agent read Me, Just Different, the first thing she said was "lose one of the friends. I can't keep them all straight." I didn't tell her I'd already cut three from my cast.)

Here are some good traits of secondary characters:

  • They have potential to create friction for your main character, to complicate things.
  • They've got a life of their own going on.
  • They disagree with decisions your MC (main character) is making, or your MC disagrees with them. Or both.

The easiest way to do this is to give your secondary characters stories of their own. We talked about your main character needing to change, finding extraordinary qualities, and digging out personality facets. Try doing the same for your secondary characters, developing subplots for them. This is especially important if you plan on telling scenes from their POV. If you're talking in someone's voice, they better have a life of their own going on, or your reader will lose interest fast.

As you think through your secondary characters, ask yourself Is this person necessary, or can I combine them with someone else? In real life, we know tons and tons of people, but it's impossible to write a novel like that without confusing the reader. So while it's true that in high school I hung out with about 10 girls, in a book I would condense it to three. While you might go to Starbucks with a friend of yours and become chummy with the barista, in a book, you should consider making that barista someone. A friend's boyfriend. Your MC's nemesis. Whatever.

One last thing before I close this out - there were 31 entries to January 17th's writing prompt. Which is amazing. I sent everything to the judges yesterday and hope to e-mail the winners next Monday.


  1. I had to lose some cousins from my Victorian novel. =) Definitely got to be too much. In my new release, history kinda made my life difficult and gave names to tons of people I'd just as soon have combined with others. Sigh.

    I love developing secondary characters, though. You just never know when one of them's going to say, "Hey! This scene's all I get? But look at all I have to tell. I need my own book!" =)

  2. You just never know when one of them's going to say, "Hey! This scene's all I get? But look at all I have to tell. I need my own book!"

    This just happened to me... And I think she is going to get her own book! She didn't even have a name in the first draft.

    Aside from wondering if my main character just had too many siblings (only 5), I've only felt the need to add characters! Maybe at some point I'll find that it's too much and combine a few...

  3. I suppose like everything else in writing, Jordan. Every writer is different. I apparently trend toward writing too many characters, and you may initially write too few :)

  4. When you write you books do you conciously do every step you're listing in these past few weeks? I'm having fun doing them!!
    I may tend to have to many characters, I had an idea for one but I don't know where to put her so she has to go. At least that's what I was thinking, then just the other day I had an idea for a new plot twist & look who showed up?! But she's not really secondary more supporting I guess?

  5. I haven't always, Tonya, but yes. I'm getting much more intentional in my writing preparation. Previously, when I had huge blocks of time to write, it didn't matter so much. Now that my writing time may come in spurts of 10 or 15 minutes, I make an effort to be as prepared as possible. Which means knowing characters and knowing my plot.

    How funny about your character. I know I titled this post "secondary characters" but a lot could be applied to the whole cast. I mean, you don't have to get crazy and do it for every single character referenced, but for those who play a role, it's a good thing to do.

  6. Oh my... thats a lot of entries lol.

    I love secondary characters =) They really twist the plot up, especially when that secondary character is a love interest of your MC.

    ...I have the same stupid problem of writing to many characters, I think I added to much in one of my books. A girl goes into a magical world, and the whole book revolves around her and her new friends that she makes and there are... 5 of them.
    + the MC, and her other two friends she brought with her... so yeah... lots of characters haha.
    I might delete a few, but I don't think I will or bear to do it, they're like my babies lol

  7. :D I did get 'compost' from the Snowflake guy. :)

    Love the new look to the blog.

  8. And until last week, I thought it was an Erica original :)

  9. I LOVE this series and I'm gleaning a lot of knowledge from all of the posts, but this one has got to be one of my favorites...who knew I could combine a character? I'm definitely going to have to try that.

    Congratulations on all of the entries!

    Lastly, I love the new look to the header! It's fantastic! That font is beautiful.

  10. I'm so glad, Rachelle!

    And isn't the header great? A friend of mine did that for me. I have zero know-how :)

  11. I'm writing a novel and I'm having a lot of trouble making my secondary characters really good. I'm keeping all the great tips on this website in mind, but I'm still getting really frustrated, and I feel like I'm stuck in the story because I can't figure out how to introduce and develop my first supporting character. Do you have any more tips that could help by any chance? Thank you.