Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Chris Eboch on Secondary Characters

A teacher I know uses my middle grade historical mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, with her gifted elementary school kids. She had them write letters to me about the book. Several children mentioned that their favorite character was Horus, the somewhat timid and insecure sidekick to the heroine. One boy noted that “He was the bravest of them all” – perhaps recognizing how much harder it is to be brave when you’re afraid.

It can be tempting for writers to focus so much on their main character that secondary characters aren’t as well-developed. But your villain and any major secondary characters should also be complex, realistic and individual. They should also have a strong role in the story: they should be there for a reason. Your story will be stronger and more interesting – and it’s even possible that young readers will find a new friend or hero.

Putting Secondary Characters First

Every novel – and most short stories and picture books – will have secondary characters. In general, the longer the book, the more secondary characters you can fit. These can be family members, friends, teachers or bosses, aliens, mythical characters, or even pets. Some will be nice. Some will be annoying. Ideally, one or more should be trouble.

Even well-meaning secondary characters can make your main character’s life more complicated. When writing for children, parents are a natural for this role. They may simply want what they see as best for their child – but if that is opposed to what the child wants, it adds complications. These could be strong enough to form the main plot, or could simply be additional challenges the child has to face.

For example, in my Haunted series, Tania doesn’t want anyone to know that she can see ghosts. She’s afraid that her mother would want her to contact her dead little sister, and she doesn’t know how. Her stepfather would want to use her on his ghost hunter TV show, and people would think she was nuts. And her father doesn’t believe in ghosts, so he might think she was lying to get attention. Well-meaning family members with their own agendas make her desperate to keep her “gift” a secret.

Other examples of conflicting desires may be a dad who wants his son to play football, while the son wants to join the band, or parents who don’t want their daughter to date yet, when she’s fallen in love. A parent may be even a greater challenge, if he or she is an alcoholic, seriously ill, or depressed. Then, of course, there’s the issue of a divorced or widowed parent dating!

Don’t forget friends, either. Friends can give bad advice, have their own agenda, use the main character for popularity or access to something or someone, or even secretly be trying to steal the main character’s love interest/job/position in society. That’s not to say all friends have to be sneaky betrayers. Even the best of friends might distract the main character with their own emotional problems. Supportive friends have their place as well, but you want to make your main character’s life difficult, so you shouldn't have too many characters who are simply helpful. Complex characters are more likely to cause trouble, intentionally or not.

Not All Grandmothers Have White Hair

What about minor characters who don’t have an important role? What about secondary characters in picture books, where you don’t have much time for developing complex characters?

In times like these, it can actually help to turn to a recognizable “type” – the comforting grandmother, the bratty younger brother, the geeky science teacher, the peppy cheerleader. The reader sees those quick clues and understands the character. However, watch out for negative stereotypes. You know, the ones based on race, gender, religion, size etc., that are hurtful or reinforce prejudice.

You might also ask if you can add a twist to make that character type fresh. This doesn’t need to take up much space in your story, but it can make your world more interesting. For example, let’s say you want your main character to turn to a grandmother for comfort. Your first instinct might be to create a sweet, white-haired lady who always has fresh baked cookies on hand. That could work, and it’s not harmful, but it is a cliché and rather blah.

Now try giving Granny a twist. Maybe she dyes her hair platinum blonde and get donuts from the bakery. Maybe she is a school principal who babysits her grandkids during the summer. Maybe she goes bowling most evenings, but will take time out to console her grandson over a plate of bowling alley nachos. Maybe she’s running for mayor, but always has time for a cup of herbal tea and conversation. Maybe she and your main character have long talks while they walk her St. Bernard. The possibilities are endless – and a whole lot more interesting than that old cliché!

Think of the grandmothers you know. Their ages may cover quite a range. They might hold a variety of jobs, or be homemakers, or be retired. They may have a husband or a wife, or be dating, or be happy alone. They have a variety of hobbies and interests. Try making your minor characters as fresh and real as the people you know. They may give you new ideas for developing your main character or your story. But even if they stay in the background, they’ll make that background more enjoyable!

Exercise: think of a type – jock, cheerleader, bully, high school science teacher, grandparent or whatever. Write a brief description, making it fresh. If you wind up writing more than a couple of lines, go back and pull out just one to three details that do the best job of making an interesting character in the least time.

Exercise: go through your work in progress and list every secondary character who has a role beyond a few lines. Make a few notes on each one – what is their basic personality and role in the story? What do they want?

Then, for each secondary character, ask:

  • Could I develop this character more, to make him or her more complicated?
  • How could this secondary character be causing problems for my main character?
  • If the character is already causing problems, could they be even worse?

If you don’t have many secondary characters, consider adding some. What kind of character could add complications and drama? Make sure any new secondary characters fit smoothly into the plot, and don’t feel like they are just shoved in to cause trouble.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. In The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, a brother and sister help a ghostly miner find his long-lost mine. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.


  1. Secondary characters are my favorite ones to write! I love to find ways for them to surprise the reader. You think this secondary character will behave one way, and then they behave another because they are more rounded than you expected.

  2. Chris, this is excellent. Off to share.

  3. This is great! Thanks for sharing.


  4. Excellent advice! Bookmarking...

  5. Really good thoughts, thanks, Chris.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!