Don’t get me wrong, the main character is the fulcrum of the novel and the engine that drives the plot forwards. Without Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle would have had no series. But for every Sherlock, there is a Dr Watson, a non-POV sidekick that plays second fiddle to the main character. I have come up with a list of the top eleven questions on how to create compelling secondary characters, to help writers create a great sidekick for their central protagonist.
Question 1 – How Many Secondary Characters Will There Be In My Novel?
The first of the top eleven questions on how to create compelling secondary characters surrounds the number of secondary characters that writers want to have in their story. There is no right or wrong answer to this. The aspiring author could have one secondary character or dozens.
Fewer secondary characters will make the writer’s life easier and the story tighter. This is because each secondary character must be created in the same way (and with the same level of depth) as the main character. Every person on Earth has come from somewhere, has a personality, has a backstory, and wants something. The same must true for every secondary character in a novel.
Question 2 – What Is The Role Of The Secondary Character(s)?
As has been said above, the main character is the focus of the story and the engine of the plot. What then for the sidekicks? What is their role? The answer depends on what the writer wants the secondary characters to do. Fundamentally, a secondary character is going to influence the main character. But in what way(s) does he/she wield influence?
In Eragon, Brom (Jeremy Irons, right) teaches the titular hero about the ways of magic whilst leading him to the Resistance, known as the Varden.
In Harry Potter, Hermione is often Harry’s go-to person to break an impasse. In Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Brom teaches the titular Eragon magic and he begins the young dragon rider on his journey to the Resistance, known as the Varden. And in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton essentially (and hypocritically) leads the eponymous Dorian into a Faustian deal.
Note, whatever the role of the secondary character in your story, the role has to be linked to the plot. If not, you must remove the character from the novel. (After-all, if this character is not pushing the plot forwards, what is he/she doing in the story?)
Question 3 – What Are The Goals And Motives Of The Secondary Characters?
The third of the top eleven questions on how to create compelling secondary characters centres around the goals and the motives of the secondary characters.
Main characters have their goals and their reasons for these goals (as have been discussed in the previous two blog pieces). Secondary characters must also have goals, and (genuine) reasons for them as well. Otherwise, they would not follow the main character. For example, in The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Samwise Gamgee follows Frodo Baggins to Mount Doom because he believes that there is good in Middle Earth; that the good is worth fighting for; and that by destroying the Ring, he will have done his bit to remove evil from the world.
Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) in The Two Towers explaining to Frodo (and the audience) as to what he is fighting for.
Similarly, (but in a totally different way) in Alex Garland’s sci-fi film Ex Machina, Ava the robot (played superbly by Alicia Vikander) befriends Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) in the hope that he can help her escape before her creator (played by Oscar Isaac) dismantles her.
Note, again, as per the above, every secondary character’s goals and motives have to be linked to the plot. If they don’t, the writer would be wise to link the secondary character’s goals and motives to the plot, or get rid of the character.
Question 4 – What Will Be The Endpoint For Each Secondary Character?
Like with the main character, the sooner the writer decides upon the endpoint for the secondary characters, the easier it will be to create them. No doubt, Suzanne Collins had an easier time writing The Hunger Games Trilogy once she decided that Primrose would die; that Katniss would not end up with Gale; and that Katniss would marry Peeta.
Once Collins made her decisions regarding those characters, she was able to engineer scenarios to ensure that the endpoints for the characters happened: Gale’s worn-outness in the third installment, Mockingjay, makes him indifferent to how many civilians die in bomb explosions, which results in Primrose getting killed, which leads to Katniss feeling (somewhat) betrayed and walking away from him, to marry Peeta.
What’s more the reader can see consistent themes and direction throughout the trilogy. Thus, by the time the endings occur, all the surprises make sense and the conclusion is logical.
Question 5 – What Are The Story-Arcs For The Secondary Characters?
While not as noticeably important as that of the main character, a secondary character still must have a story-arc. This is because he/she must be a different person at the end of the story to the person he/she was at the start of it. Take Ron Weasley. He starts off as a young lad who wants to be head boy and win Quidditch matches for his House, Gryffindor, to emulate his older brother. But because of the time he spends with Hermione (while helping Harry), he develops romantic feelings for her that results in them getting married and having children.
Similarly (but in a different way), in Damian Chazelle’s film, Whiplash, Conductor Terrence Fletcher (played with terrifying realism by JK Simmons) gets fired from his position because of his tactics to motivate his pupils, particularly Andrew Nieman, and ends up leading a band instead.
Question 6 – What Will Be The Positive And Negative Traits Of The Secondary Characters?
The sixth of the top eleven questions on how to create compelling secondary characters involves writers asking themselves how to make their characters complex.
In order to do this, writers must start by giving their characters a mix of positive and negative traits, and make those traits relevant to the plot. For example, Rudd Threetrees, in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, is the respected leader of a group of outlaws, who are good at scouting and rather funny (in a crude way). But he is also honourable (for a bandit) and trusting of those around him, all of whom happen to be unscrupulous by nature…
Lord Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aiden Gillan) has a wonderful blend of positive and negative traits, all of which impact the plot. The question is – will the same traits that have got him so far be the cause of his downfall in the book series?
For comparison, let’s look at Lord Petyr Baelish (better known as Littlefinger) from George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series. In the book series, he comes across as charming, friendly, always willing to help others, and politically savvy. But he is also a pathological liar and a ruthless socio-psychopath. He is willing to sacrifice anyone to achieve his insatiable ambitions. All of this has led him to accrue royal favour, and to become the Lord of Harrenhall and Lord-Protector of the Eyrie by the end of the fifth installment, A Dance With Dragons. It remains to be seen if Lord Petyr’s traits end up with him meeting his demise at Sansa’s orders, like in Season VII of the TV adaptation of the books.
Questions 7 – 11
I hope you have enjoyed my tips so far and that they help make the writing journey a little easier and more enjoyable. In the next blog post, we shall continue and discuss questions 7 – 11 (inclusive) on how to create compelling secondary characters.
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