Monday, April 20, 2015

There Are No Secondary Characters by Jim Hill

I have so much to add to the story if you'll only listen.

Sometimes writing is all about the pre-writing. What has to happen in this scene to move the story forward? What's driving that secondary character's arc? Who has the magic, and what are they going to do with it? Who's going to be pissed off at the result?

When you can answer those questions you've got a ball game.

These are the questions that have bedeviled me this week, as I tuck into the final scenes of my WIP. More specifically that one about the secondary character. You see, the secondary character that I’m dealing with hasn’t been in the story for a couple of hundred pages, and I kind of forget what was driving him. That’s a problem. I mean, who wants to read a story with an unmotivated character? Fortunately, I had some tools that helped me get a handle on him.

The first tool is simply understanding the role of the secondary character in the story. That is, what do I want him to do? That’s a question I can answer:

  • Act as a rival to my MC
  • Help reveal aspects of my MC through scene work
  • Make my MC’s life miserable in small ways while the rest of the world makes it miserable in big ways

There’s more, of course, but those are the high level motivations for the story to function the way I want it to unfold. What those points don’t address is what this character wants, because if you took him out for a cup of coffee you’d find out that he thinks he’s the hero of his own story. Maybe even this story, the one that already has a main character.

Hey, look at that! That’s the second tool in your Writer’s Toolkit – allowing those other characters to turn the tables on your plans and tell you what they want. This is also where writers start to sound a little crazy, but if you’ve read this far you’re down with that. Let’s list a few ways to draw out those secondaries. Sometimes you can't stop them, other times it takes a little work to get them to open up so it helps to have a few angles of attack.

All of the tactics below fall under the category of pre-writing, side writing, or as I call it “that collection of text files, Post-Its, doodles, and half-formed thoughts left on my phone at 3:00 AM.” In the thick of a draft it’s often easy to forget about these breadcrumb trails you’ve left for yourself, but trust me, they aren’t just breadcrumbs. Sometimes they’re solid gold nuggets (I may have twisted that metaphor one turn too far…).

Jim’s Three Favorite Side Writing Tactics
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1) Have your character write you a letter telling you about themselves, and whatever else they want to talk about. You’ll be surprised.

This one really gets you into the head of the character. When done with total commitment–and how else are you doing it? You’re awesome–it requires you to discover their voice and their motivations. The inner quiet yearnings, and the louder outer ones all come out into the open. Let them confess, let them rant, let them whine. Heck, they might even threaten you if they’ve got a dark side. Did you even know they had a dark side when you started the letter? Maybe, maybe not.

2) Take them out for that metaphorical cup of joe. Or something stiffer if it’s in character. Come prepared with a list of interview questions and grill them harder than Terry Gross during pledge week. Promise them a tote bag if they come clean.

This technique is good for loosening YOU up, especially if the first tip felt a little too free-form for your style. If you get good, surprising answers you can stop here, or challenge yourself to circle back to number 1. Maybe your secondary character just isn’t comfortable talking during an interview. The letter angle might free him to elaborate on something that struck a nerve in this step. I did say this is where writers sound nuts, right? Good, I thought so.

3) Show it from their side. I saved the best for last. It helps to know facts and background information from the other steps, but it is by far the one that turns the dial to eleven for me. Ready? Forget your main character and write some scenes from the secondary’s point-of-view. Now she really is the star of the story, and not just brooding in the background desperate for attention.

Why does it work? Even when two characters are on the same side they still have conflicting goals when it comes to their personally desired outcome. Ask Ron Weasley if you don’t believe me. And if they’re rivals, or have hidden agendas, this is where you’ll get to take those things out for a spin to see just how far you can push them. And how much havoc you can cause your main character. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Oh, it’s the best.

Give it a shot. Let the secondary characters take center stage for a bit. You might discover a star who’s been waiting in the wings since chapter three, and develop a Robert-Altman-worthy ensemble in the process.


  1. "Grill them harder than Terry Gross during pledge week" is my fave line of the day.

    I am currently dealing with a secondary character wants to be the MC of this story issue. These are all great strategies. #3 has proven to be the most telling. Who knew said character had so many issues!

    Thanks for a great post, Jim.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Michael. The secondary characters that want to take over can be a blessing if you get to a sequel. ;-)

  2. Terry Gross and Fresh Air rule.

    Now, I don't always do it, because I don't always struggle with characters, but if I do get a little stuck, I'll fill out a character sheet. I also keep a list of all named characters, even if they're tertiary or beyond.

    1. I have trouble with the standard character sheets. I think they're too formal for my extreme right brain to love. I guess that's why I come up with games and immersive tricks.

  3. I'm loving this post Jim! Lotsa great advice here to use.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!