Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wait a Second! Creating Secondary Characters

By Marie Lu

JH: Today we have YA author Marie Lu joining us to talk about those pesky secondary characters. She shares three tips on how to make those non-main characters anything but second place.

Marie's debut novel, LEGEND (book 1 of a trilogy), releases today from Putnam/Penguin 9and the buzz on this one has been huge, so go check it out). Set in a dark, futuristic United States, LEGEND tells the story of a notorious 15-year old boy criminal, and a 15-year old girl prodigy hired to hunt him down. You can read an excerpt and find out more by visiting the official Facebook page.

Take it away Marie…

Ah, secondary characters. (Or what I call "secondaries".) Secondaries are an amazing way for you to enrich both the world building of your story and the depths of your protagonist. When it comes to these sidekicks, less is more: a world with hundreds of one-dimensional secondaries is less effective to me than a world with a dozen three-dimensional secondaries. Just like your protagonists, these people need to feel real, with believable flaws and motivations. They are also incredibly fun to develop. Here are a few quick things I've learned about creating secondaries. They might or might not be helpful for you, but these are things that I definitely kept in mind when writing Legend.

1) Develop your secondaries to enrich your main protagonist's characteristics, strengths, and flaws.
In Legend, one of the two protagonists is June, a 15-year old girl prodigy. June in particular has a lot of strengths: she is intelligent, logical, and athletic, wealthy and well-loved by her society. To give her a vulnerability, I created her older brother Metias. Metias is twelve years older than June, acting as a parent proxy in the absence of their mother and father. Suddenly, his brotherly maturity gave June a mischievous streak, a few moments where she acts as young as she is, and a place for her misplaced views on class and money to play out. Metias also gave June a person she looked up to and feared losing. It is a piece of tension that jumpstarts the beginning of Legend. Having Metias in place made me change parts of June's personality simply because of the interactions the two had to have. It made her a more complete character to me. How do your secondaries interact with your protagonist? Do they force traits out of your main character that weren't there before?

2) We all have random walk-on characters in our stories out of sheer necessity, but many secondaries stay through an entire story.
Don't forget to make these guys as three-dimensional as your protagonists. Secondaries often have personality traits that are a little more exaggerated than the protagonist's (here's where those tropes come in--the wise old man, the mischievous thief, etc). But when you make their character profiles, give them some background. Why is this character a mischievous thief? Why is this character short-tempered all the time, or angsty, or funny? Did s/he have funny parents? Were his/her parents murdered? Was s/he once not like this, and some circumstance changed him/her? Knowing the answers to these questions will make these secondaries come alive on the page. As a result, they'll feel more whole to the reader and help them seem as life-like as your dynamic protagonist. What's more, these character profiles are an excellent way to incorporate more world building into your story. What happened in the past life of a secondary may be some cool culture/tradition of your world that you can share with the reader in an active scene, rather than in a block of boring exposition.

3) Combine secondaries to make more interesting characters.
In Legend, the second main protagonist is a notorious, 15-year old boy criminal named Day. Originally, Day started out having both a best friend (let's call him Sidekick #1) who lived on the streets with him, as well as an orphaned girl (Sidekick #2) that tags along with Day. #1 was kind, sweet, and optimistic (i.e. flat and one-dimensional), while #2 was frightened, timid, and very vulnerable (i.e. also flat). It took me a couple of chapters to realize that these two characters should really be fused into one character: a kind, sweet, and optimistic orphaned girl who started off frightened and shy when she first met Day. Suddenly, she felt more real to me. I wrote an entire character profile for why she had these traits and what had happened in her past. Now, when she appears on the page, she has a host of reasons for acting the way she does and she doesn't just have one defining characteristic. Plus, the other dimensions of her personality really come out in Legend's sequel and add tension to the protagonists' lives. I think a really good secondary will help push a plot forward with his/her motivations and flaws.

So, there are some things I've learned to do for my secondary characters! Hope they're helpful for you. Secondaries are an excellent opportunity to enrich a story . . . and besides, we don't want the protagonists to steal ALL the spotlight, do we?

About Legend

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic's wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic's highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country's most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths - until the day June's brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family's survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias's death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.


  1. These are awesome tips on how to develop secondary characters, which are sometimes flat when I write them or don't sound unique enough.

    Can't wait to read Legend.

  2. Sounds like a great book! Thank you so much for the tips, the one on combining characters was especially helpful. :)

  3. I've been looking forward to reading Legend :) These are great tips. Secondaries are so much fun to write :)

  4. This is exactly what I needed. How did you know? Legend sounds like a great book. I'm glad you pointed it out to me. :)

  5. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an arc of Legend and it is a fantastic book. Can't wait for the next one--the characters are definitely the highlight and there's much we can learn from you! :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  6. AWESOME post! I finished LEGEND last week and it is seriously one of my favorites of the year!! :D