Saturday, March 19, 2016

Secondary Character Surprises

In some stories I’ve read, the secondary characters are as interesting if not more so than the lead characters. It is not only good characters who attract my attention but also the evil ones. Often it is their curious mannerisms or funny vocal quips that draw me. If they make me curious or furious as to why they are as they are, or make me laugh while making me wonder if they are really happy, they distract me from the lead character's dilemma. For me, they can help develop a world or make a not-so-interesting main character’s story better. I’ve also noticed that I have sometimes promoted them to the main character in another story.

I hope this doesn’t happen in my own stories. Secondary characters should not overwhelm the main characters in their stories, and I try to keep the extras as story support. I’ve used psychologist’s Carl Jung’s archetypes as described in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey to help format main and secondary characters in my stories, along with a Personality Self-Portrait by Dr. John M. Oldham and Lois B. Morris, The latter is an interesting book on different types of personalities and personality disorders.
Oldham and Morris help me leave my preconceptions about a certain character and develop them in another way. Vogler, however, shows how an ancient method of delivering and a more modern deciphering of characters in a story is still valid in today's fiction. These have helped me determine my characters’ purposes and how to define them as an individual, for if a character has no purpose or personality, it is a character to delete. Those who inhabit a world with no other function than background have names such as waiter, or dog walker, or simply man or woman.

To earn a name in a story, the character has to have a reason to be included. I have also discovered if I put any thought into a secondary character beyond their part in the story, that if I create personality and quirks, they become more personable to me. In turn, they often surprise me by telling me what they will do and how they will react. It’s disconcerting, and they can become demanding forces.

I ran into this in my first published book, the fantasy, Magic Aegis. Kissre is a stern but effective mercenary who becomes the heroine’s bodyguard. She was the wrong gender for a mercenary in the place and time of this fantasy. She faced bias in the country where she worked, but she also wouldn’t let me change her into a man. I became stuck writing several scenes with Kissre. It was as if she wouldn’t let me write what I wanted, as if she asked me ‘Would a man in this position do this? I think not. Let me do it my way. It’s how a soldier does it.” It was also how a woman damaged by personal history but secure in herself and her femininity would do it. She surprised me, but I must admit, I haven’t met many female mercenaries. Kissre didn’t kick me in the teeth and demand her story, but my curiosity about her background and future drove me to write her story, Acceptance. Then in her story, while she is arguing with her sister, Tyna demanded a chance to tell her side of the story, which became the story in Change. Secondary characters can become an opportunity and a challenge when writing.

This never happened in the Black Angel space opera series. The multiple-personality lead character Jesslynn Chambers had enough characters inside her to prevent any secondary character from making demands. Keeping each recognizable to the reader by their behavior was hard enough. Later, upon thinking that over, it also made me question if I had a lead character or multiple secondary characters pretending to be a lead character. The series was a surprising, interesting, but difficult writing experience.

Yet, in my third series, Home World, a secondary character who is only mentioned in passing in a second volume, The Nanite Dragoon, who had little impact on the story other than as a friend/ally, piqued my interest. Now the story of Brigit and the other Dragoons, soldiers too dangerous to let live and too valuable to kill, will find new purpose in taming their new home, a nearly complete bio-formed planet.

Secondary characters can surprise readers and writers. What I try to do, however, is not have a previous story’s main characters invade the subsequent volume. They may have limited appearances, but their presence is limited to less than most secondary characters. Because, in reading many series, what I have noticed is that previous main characters tend to lose their distinctive personalities when dropping into a later story. I’d rather not have that happen.

Please visit the following blogs and see what these authors have to say on the topic of secondary characters.

Anne Stenhouse 
Skye Taylor 
Beverley Bateman 
Judith Copek
Connie Vines
Victoria Chatham 
Helena Fairfax 
Marci Baun 
Rachael Kosinski 
Hollie Glover
Dr. Bob Rich 

Fiona McGie


  1. Hi Rhobin, that's interesting what you say about a previous main character becoming diluted when mentioned in a second story. I hadn't thought of it in that way. something to watch out for when writing a sequel. Thanks for the great topic and the interesting post.

  2. Rhobin, the titles of your books sound like old legends (I mean this in a really good way). I liked the point about how characters can sometimes be pushy--and how can someone who doesn't physically exist do this??--and it's a little freaky. At some point, you're not the driving force in the story anymore. You have to step back a little and listen to your characters. Your posts are always thought provoking.

  3. I have never tried to write a series exactly because I wasn't sure the main character would come off as well as when first introduced in Book 1. But the idea of developing the secondary character in a sequel is intriguing to me. And it sounds like a lot of fun. Thank you.

  4. In addition to the archtypes, I also use an outline of the main characteristics of first, middle and youngest children in a family and how those traits manifest themselves in adulthood and that has helped me come up with some really neat ideas for both my main characters and my secondary ones. Especially if they happen to be siblings.

  5. I think the whole point is that you never set out to write a least I don't. But it's the urging of the characters that creates more books out of one. Like Rachael says, it's kind of freaky how "alive" the voices in our heads are. But once I write "the end", usually those voices are quiet. Then others start making insistent noises.

    I've been too busy with multiple jobs during the school year (like always) and haven't had any time to write at all. Sometimes the voices are silent, like they're pouting. Other times, they "yell" at me, and I have to explain how eager I am to write their life stories also. Sheesh!

  6. Interesting way to develop your secondary characters, or any characters. I'm going to check out the books you mentioned. Thanks for sharing, Rhobin.

  7. Hi Rhobin, you have an interesting take on secondary characters. I have Vogler's book but not the other. I think I will add it to my wish list.

  8. Hi Rhobin, I loved doing this post, thank you for choosing yet another great topic. Like Helena, above, I too was caught by your reference to keeping former leads off-stage. It wasn't possible in Daisy's Dilemma, but it was troublesome. Anne Stenhouse

  9. Rhobin, it was truly a great topic. I liked hearing about your characters and how you approached them in different novels. Everyone has her own unique way of going about a novel, and it's fun to see how different the methods are. Thanks again for a super topic.