Thursday, March 17

Do We Have a Future Together? Secondary Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Primary characters are easy. We pick them, we write abut them, we plan their lives. Secondary characters are a bit more wily. Sometimes we know exactly who they are are what role they play. Other times, we have no idea who will be a walk on and who will be a star. How do you know who is a throwaway character and who will eventually become an important one?

Don't I Know You? 

Characters that are there for window dressing usually stay there. They serve a small, specific function and once they're done, they're done. They don't affect plot, so they can be as faceless as needed.


Sometimes a walk-on role develops into someone a lot more important, and suddenly they have their own story arc. A throwaway character in The Shifter ended up being a major character, and it was purely by accident. I needed a walk-on and they were never meant to be more than that. But later, when I needed a character to play a supporting role, it just hit me that using the same one really tied the story together in a way I'd hadn't thought about before.

There was a reason this worked out so well.

This particular throwaway character was in a role that connected to the larger plot. I couldn't have used any other throwaway character in the entire book and still accomplished the same thing. (Which is a really good indication of a potential star hiding in the throwaways).

When you know you're going to create a character with more staying power, you can look back at some of your walk-ons and see if any would work. Not only does this help keep the number of characters down, but it allows you to deepen your story links and tie things together in ways that enhance your theme or even increase your stakes.

  • Is there a throwaway in a position to make your protagonist's life harder? 
  • Support them when no one else can? 
  • Complicate their problems? 
 If so, they could be more. If not, they're fine in teeny roles.

The flip side of this, is a character who is fun, but really doesn't do anything to help the story. These guys can easily take over and demand more page time, and you sometimes end up creating subplots for them. Be wary of these prima donnas. They seem really nice, so you'll want to help them grow, but keep an eye out so they don't start moving in without permission.

Promote the stars. Keep the spotlight hogs in the dark.


  1. Thanks for answering my question - even though no one ever really knows when a character becomes important. I guess, a follow-up question is: Did you have any "important" characters turn out to be NOT important? Did you have to write off any characters during your revisions - and was that difficult?

    Second question, how did you get in the "mindset" of writing from the antagonist perspectives (assuming you wrote in third-person)? If not, what are your thoughts on how to decide between telling a story in first- or third- person?

    Sorry...lots of questions :) But you have all the interesting answers!

    P.S. Not that you need awards, I gave you a blog award here because I like your blog!

  2. Thanks so much! I love questions, so never fear about asking them. Some I'll answer here, others I'll save for a post. Some I'll do both, like this one! I just cut an important character out of book two actually. They just didn't work in the end, and they took about 20K of the manuscript with them when they went -sigh-. I don't mind cutting, so it didn't bother me at all, and the new stuff that replaced it is FAR better. But it can be pretty disheartening to spend a lot of work on someone and then have to get rid of them, even if you know it's best for the story. (More on this in a later post, as it's a good topic)

    You don't know if a character will be more, but it's good to keep a tight rein on them so they don't take over. Keep an eye out for the ones with the potential to be more, but don't let every good walk-on talk you into making them a star :)

  3. I figure you probably left the name out on purpose, but I'm still going to ask: Who was the walk-on?

  4. Danello. I had no idea who he was when I first wrote him. He was just the night guard, and I never expected him to show up again.

  5. I was right! All I've read so far is the excerpt online, and somehow I knew that you were talking about Danello!

    But then, I've had that happen to me a LOT. My urban fantasy WiP started out with the mantras: "The vampire will be a bit character" and "The vampire is NOT a love interest."

    *clears throat* Um, yeah. It's still happening in an unconventional way, so that's all good.

  6. Your post a few days ago about character names reminded me of a character in Driftwood I had to rename, and linking to this post, it was because from being a bit player he had become more important.

    Originally I'd named him Bruce, but as he became more of a love interest for Juliet I knew I had to rename him - sorry if anyone reading this is a Bruce, or married to one - but the name just wasn't doing it for me in a romantic sense.

    I've also had to get rid of a major character and plot line in my present WIP, the writing was good (well in my view anyway!!) but the plot line was weak and wasn't adding to the overall structure. Sometimes we just have to murder our darlings. On a happier note I have plans to use the removed plot as a short story. Never delete anything - just cut and paste.

  7. Shauna: Poor Bruce :) But yeah, Bruce and Juliet doesn't have a good ring to it. (Though I admit I had a HUGE crush on Bruce Boxlightener back in his Scarecrow and Mrs. Kings days, so I can see the name as a love interest) That's a great idea about saving scenes for a possible short story.

  8. Interesting post.

    I had one throwaway character in the manuscripts I'm working on who was simply meant to play the role of a guide in the first story, then maybe be mentioned once later.

    While working on a side story in the same manuscript series, that character decide to reveal himself as a major complication, and ended up being a villain to one of the protagonists.

    Surprised me, but I liked the idea and kept it. So yeah... I see what you mean about those secondary characters who get a larger role. The same happened with a couple other characters in the storyline, and I'm looking forward to seeing how their stories play out. :-)

  9. Sbibb, fun! I love when that happens. Make me seem like a plotting genius, lol.