Wednesday, June 04, 2014

What Are Your Secondary Characters Good At?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In one of her sessions at Springmingle '14, editor Cheryl Klein said one trait of a compelling character was that they were good at something. I immediately thought of Dwight from the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger--the weirdest kid at school who really creeped everyone out, but he did amazing origami.

This skill made him not only interesting to the reader, but interesting to the other characters and ultimately created the core conflict of the novel's plot (Was Origami Yoda real and could they trust his advice?) Sure, Dwight was weird, but everyone could get past that because of his skills. He could do what none of them could and that made him special.

We admire skill, even when the skillful person is less than admirable. Some of the best characters ever created are dark and dangerous and people we wouldn't want to hang around with. But they're also really good at something.

Making your protagonist good at something is a great idea (and this skill is often what makes them the protagonist in the first place), but secondary characters can also benefit from this trait. A talent or skill can turn them from window dressing to vital players in the novel.

Let's look at some benefits of giving secondary characters a skill:

It keeps the protagonist from being perfect

It's far too easy to heap talents on your protagonist, but this can turn them into a Mary Sue or Gary Lou (someone who's too perfect to be real or enjoyable to read about). It's not believable for one person to be so good at so many things. Instead of giving the hero yet another amazing skill, why not give it to the best friend or sidekick character?

(Here's more on creating a great protagonist)

It helps flesh out characters who don't always get fully developed

Thinking about what a character is good at also encourages you to consider what they're bad at. Talents and flaws help round out a character and make them feel more real. They're no longer just "the best friend" who doesn't seem to have a life outside of being the protagonist's buddy. They feel like they have lives of their own and things happening to them even when they're not on the page. That also makes the world feel dynamic and alive, and not centered around one person.

(Here's more on creating secondary characters)

It provides more opportunities for conflict

Secondary characters can end up being "yes men" who are just there to support the protagonist. But if they have their own set of skills (and flaws) then they become their own people with their own agendas. People like to use their skills, and this can provide conflict and tension for the protagonist without having to bring in the antagonist. Even when the goal is the same, you can have various characters offer different approaches to the best way to resolve that goal. Even friends fight about the right way to approach a problem.

(Here's more on quiet conflicts)

It gives secondary characters a reason to be there

While the protagonist does indeed need to be the one driving the plot, having them do everything all the time can feel just as annoying as them doing nothing. Use the talents and skills of the other characters to give the protagonist a break once in a while. They can still make the final call, but other characters can contribute and play key roles in the plan. This also gives them legitimate reasons for being part of the story besides window dressing or someone for the protagonist to talk at.

(Here's more on why protagonists need friends)

It provides extra resources to solve plot problems

You don't want to have another character always coming to the rescue when the protagonist is stuck (that would feel contrived), but giving someone else a unique skill can provide the perfect solution to a plot problem at just the right time. It also gives you a pool of options to draw from so you can keep your plot twists unpredictable.

(Here's more on creating plot twists)

Aside from maybe slapstick comedy, it's rarely fun to watch someone screw up all the time. Characters who have skills and use those skills are character we want to see more of. We want to see how they figure out difficult problems and how they work together to resolve issues. We also like to see how those different skill sets might clash and create their own trouble.

Give an already likable character a talent or skill and you might just strike character gold.

What are some of your favorite character's good at? How about your own characters? 

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. My favorite characters have a variety of skills. Pretty much, if a complex character's considerate, I'll probably love him or her. The skills have nothing to do with it. So skills vary, featuring things like killing (Tybalt, Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire), languages and archery (Tikaya, Encrypted by Lindsay Buroker), and painting (Adrian, Bloodlines by Richelle Mead).

    In one of my series, there's a different narrator in every book, with each book's narrator being a background character from the book before it. It's providing a fun opportunity to illustrate how some people…adjust who sees what part of them. Especially with the narrator of book 4.

    1. I love that series idea. I think different narrators like that keep it interesting and fresh, and makes it more fun to write.

  2. I just finished reading the novel Ruby Red. I liked that the main character's best friend was really into researching (and wanted to become a detective). She was always using Google and movies to help the MC with her time travel and the secret societies. I thought it was a cute way to incorporate the best friend as more than just a sounding board.

    1. Perfect way to use a character. Makes total sense that she'd have the skills to help out in that way.

  3. One of my favorite characters in Gillian Bradshaw's `Island of Ghosts' is a Roman legionary named Longus with a talent for turning everything into a funny story. It comes in handy for defusing potentially volatile situations.

    1. That sounds great. Laughter during tense scenes can be so effective. And who doesn't like a guy who can make them laugh?

  4. Great idea--thought-provoking blog. As usual, a "must save."

  5. Ooh, fun topic. One of my secondary characters is good at picking locks. Which comes in handy!

  6. Indeed! It would be fun to write a story where someone has that skill, but it's not a skill that's actually needed in the book (grin).

  7. Janice,

    Great post! Any chance you would like to be a guest blogger on

    1. Sure, just email the details. Thanks for the invite!