Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Second Fiddle, Sweeter Music—Using Secondary Characters To Give Your Novel A Bigger Feel

By Bonnie Randall 

Special Guest Author 

Two things I love as a writer and a reader: deep, emotionally wrought stories, and authentic, rich characters. I am a firm believer that a novel is only as deep as the characters who populate it and, having spent a lifetime reading, a fair chunk of it writing, and devoting a lot of time studying reflections of those who craft great prose, the following are my thoughts on employing secondary characters to give your book greater, richer depth.

1. Consider Your Secondary’s Emotional Relevance

We already know that secondaries exist to move the plot forward (heck—every sentence in your book exists to move the plot forward), but in order to ‘go deep instead of just far’ your secondary needs to do more than just help your story be told. They also need to be emotionally relevant to your hero and / or heroine (or emotionally relevant to the plot itself). In my novel Divinity & The Python, the heroine Shaynie’s refurbished funeral parlor, Divinity, is the chief secondary character and, as the story progresses, it is unmistakable that the old morgue feels as deeply for Shaynie as she feels for it; so much, in fact, that the reader sees how Divinity and Shaynie are completely emotionally enmeshed—one is constantly working to save and/or nurture the other. Their emotional bond is unshakable to the degree that the reader cannot root for one without rooting for the other, and while the story remains completely Shaynie’s, the presence of this secondary, Divinity, is crucial to the emotional thrust of the plot (and definitely critical to the outcome).

2. Does Your Secondary Have His/Her Own Arc?

A simultaneous storyline can significantly deepen the main plot—especially if the arc experienced by the secondary is either the complete antithesis of or the echo of the hero/heroine’s journey. Serial dramas (think Grey’s Anatomy) are masters at this. So was Leigh Bardugo in Shadow & Bone: flawlessly lovely Genya, the heroine’s tailor, has an arc which suggests she is the King’s concubine-under-duress, all while pining for her true love who, ironically and despite her tremendous beauty, barely knows she exists. Her circumstances are different than heroine Alina’s, yet their arcs mirror each other as the conflicts, stakes and ensuing tension they experience are fundamentally the same.

3. Does Your Secondary’s Arc Amplify The Conflict For The Protagonist?

Does your secondary’s plight generate barriers for your hero or heroine? If yes, does this intensify the way your hero and your secondary butt heads? Or does it create tension despite the existing friendship or romance between them? Either possibility makes for deeper storytelling and adds layers to the stakes of your plot. Jessie Burton executes this brilliantly in her novel The Miniaturist. Secondary Marin’s heavy-handed secrecy and hostility surrounding her own arc (which the reader only gets glimpses of till Act III) create umpteen barriers for heroine Nella, thwarting Nella’s every effort to move forward. Yet as the story climaxes, the reader sees that Marin’s arc complements the main plot as a thematic sort of echo; secret loves, secret passions, and secrets ultimately worth dying for. Burton capitalizes on her secondary’s arc to not only drive the tension as high as she can, but also to drive every theme home in the most emotionally charged way possible.

But (every article I write seems to always have a but) every strategy comes with cautions. Be wary of the following pitfalls when you choose to enlarge the personality, storyline, and emotional relevance of your secondary:

1. Show-Stealers

While a larger than life secondary can make for excellent storytelling, the risk we run as authors is to draw a character our readers want to see more than our hero and/or heroine. This happened (fans of Cassandra Clare, I implore you to not light me on fire) in the Shadowhunter Series with the magnificent secondary, Magnus Bane. Magnus is an incredible character: flamboyant, witty, clever, and frequently hilarious, as an immortal Magnus holds ancient wisdom—and endures the tragic pain of having seen centuries’ worth of mortal friends, family, and lovers die, thus leaving him lonely. Magnus is such a complex and excellently drawn secondary that guess what? I’d literally thumb through huge chunks of text just to read the scenes he was in next—thereby missing a great deal of the story itself and ending up like that annoying date we’ve all taken to the movie who pesters us with questions: “Now who’s this person? What are they doing here?”

So…like rich food or fine booze, moderation is key when we’ve created a secondary whose strong and compelling personality threatens to upstage the whole show.

2. Don’t Let Your Secondary’s Arc Allow Your Story To Stray

Emotional relevance and plot relevance are the mantras to live by here. Hands up if you watch The Killing. Right now I am on Season Three of this staggering series, and I love everything about the show except….at the end of every scene for the main plot, the action cuts to an interlude showing the storyline of a convict the heroine put in prison. His arc is so loosely and tenuously tied to the main story that I find myself ‘tuning out’ when his scenes are on (which I’ll most certainly regret; the writers for The Killing are pros and there’s no way this character’s scenes aren’t totally necessary). Still, these scenes seem to make the plot wander, and I am feeling frustrated (as is my hubby, having to listen to me: “This dude again? What’s his deal? Why are we supposed to care about him?”). Moral of the story: don’t frustrate your reader. They opened your book to read the story that compelled them on the back-jacket cover. An unrelated (or seeming unrelated) arc for a secondary is going to, rightfully, get their hackles up—especially if it takes up too much ‘airtime’.

And that’s a wrap for my thoughts on deep, rich secondary characters. How about your impressions? Or perhaps impressions some outstanding secondaries have made on you. Share and discuss!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

The Cards Forecast Work

Shaynie Gavin is so much more than the sexy siren who mixes cocktails at The Python. A carpenter with a business plan, Shaynie is trying to amass enough funds to launch her own dream - Divinity, a place where up-cycled furniture from the past is sold alongside Tarot readings forecasting the future - and all in a setting that could not be more perfect: a former funeral parlor. Shaynie's belief that Divinity is attuned with the passions, the loves, and even the lies of its departed souls, allow her to feel satisfied when the cards she draws there reveal Wands, the Tarot's symbol for work. And yet...Shaynie would be so grateful if the Tarot would also, just once, illuminate a Hellnight from her past. A lost evening whose scars still slither over her skin, Hellnight haunts Shaynie. Yet when she calls the question of that chilling evening into her deck...

The Cards Forecast Love

...and love appears in the form of pro hockey star Cameron Weste. Weste is haunted by scars and superstitions of his own, and he wants Shaynie's Tarot to answer far deeper questions than she first guesses this sexy Lothario to be capable of. Who knew Weste was this intense? The Tarot, apparently. And yet...

The Cards Forecast The Devil

When Cameron Weste lands in her life, a stalker surfaces too, dropping clues to a connection between Shaynie, Cameron, and her lost, brutal Hellnight. Suddenly every card warns of deception, and nowhere feels safe. Shaynie and Cameron have to fight for their love - and their lives - as The Devil, their stalker, is determined to turn the Death Card for them both.


  1. Good thoughts!

    I find it helps to consider what the secondary characters are doing when the MC isn't around. What do they want and not want? Considering that helps keep them from ending up nothing more than convenient supports for the MC, whenever and wherever the MC needs them.

    1. Absolutely! They need to have a life outside the hero/heroine.

  2. Fabulous post. I am working on my secondary character right now. Trying to make her ALMOST as fun to read as the MC. :-)

    1. Fantastic! I love reading books where the secondary is just a hair away from compelling me like the heroine / hero does.

  3. Thanks so much for this wonderful post. I will be taking a hard look at my secondary character.

    1. You're so welcome! Enjoy examining your whole 'cast'. :)

  4. Thanks for this post. I'm still in draft mode with my very first novel. When I got stumped, I realized that my MC became a wall flower while the secondary one (her love interest) pretty much took over the show (oh, the life he lives), I decided to have them share the spotlight. I'll be paying more attention to my timid MC, so she won't change the plot by not talking to me & wondering off somewhere. She's got an interesting life too... just more subtle.

    1. Sounds like a fascinating combination of characters!

  5. My historical novel has two equally major characters, who are friends. The first half of the story deals with what happens until one of them is murdered, and the second half of the story deals with how the other major character avenges the murder. Historical circumstances dictate that the two halves of the story are both separate and inseparable. They are separate because both characters can't share the stage at the same time except for a brief period at the beginning -- one goes on a journey that takes him away from the other. They are inseparable because the second character brings the murderers to justice. He does this in a period of history when the Civil War is in full swing and no laws had yet been passed to govern a vast territory larger than most countries of the world. Despite the lack of laws and the fact that elsewhere vigilantes resolved similar issues at the end of a rope, the hero's resolution included every element of justice that we would expect even today. That is, a grand jury, prosecuting and defense attorneys, a judge, and a sworn jury. I can't merge the two halves of the story because that's the way it really happened. It makes for an awkward construction, but the only other approach would be two separate novels.

    1. You know, I don't write historical fiction, but I certainly read it, and it seems to me (and maybe others can hop in and discuss this too, offer insight) that historicals often march to their own set of rules. Consider Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan or Frog Music by Emma Donoghue and also Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley - all are historical pieces of fiction that tell the story which involves the relationships typical (or atypical) for that particular period of time. Like your novel, Dave, these stories' power is due in part to how the relationship in each depicts or defines the era - and also drives the plot. Thus we have, essentially, two heroes / heroines on the stage and neither can really be defined as primary or secondary.