In the previous post, I suggested 15 “roles” for Secondary Characters (SCs), but paradoxically, we have to get beyond the roles if we want the SCs to be successful. They need to breathe and live their lives outside the pages of the book, beyond the view of the protagonist and even the narrator (if they aren't the same). This is the hardest part, in some ways, of any book. To avoid stereotypes, you must avoid taking shortcuts in your development of these characters. This isn’t Tinder. You can’t swipe left and right. You need to take time to get to know them, much like you get to know your MC. So there are two things to keep in mind here:
First, they need their own story arc, however small, based on their motivations. In A Lady in the Smoke, Anne’s brother Philip decides he will help Elizabeth prove that Paul is not guilty of manslaughter. But Philip does it in a way that remains loyal to a dead friend. Similarly, in The Hunger Games trilogy, Prim occupies many roles: she’s an ally, an innocent victim, and at times Katniss’s conscience. But she also wants to be a doctor. That’s how she would describe her arc, if she were the protagonist of her own book.
Second, I would suggest having a character page and a backstory for every secondary character. I know this sounds time-consuming. But it will matter, and I’ll share my thoughts about why in a bit.
There are several ways to develop these secondary characters. I’m going to give you two exercises I find most useful.
Take a piece of paper (or start a brand new document on your computer) and put at the top the name of a secondary character—one that maybe you’re having a problem seeing at the moment. Now you're going to begin to describe this person.
You probably have some questions of your own that help you get at a character. And while I know a lot of writer’s guides suggest questions, I had to assemble my own. For our purposes here, I’ll use “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun.
Most people begin with physical appearance. What do they look like? Tall or short? Lean or heavyset? Hair color? Eye color? Some people find pictures of people in magazines, or online to help with this. But I want to push this a bit further. If they are tall, where do they get their height—which side of the family? If they have wheat-colored hair, which parent had it? If they have green eyes, which parent or grandparent had it? Who else in their family has it?
Do they have an unusual scar or—as in the case of my Mr. Flynn, is he missing part of one of his fingers? A disability or medical condition? Where did they get it? Or when did it become manifest? Is there a cure? How does it affect their daily life? What can they not do because of it? Is it the sort of thing other characters will notice?
How old are they? What was happening in the world the year they were born? What is a key historical event that happened since then?
Do they have any verbal tics? (Think of the way Snape speaks. Or Yoda.)
Where did they grow up?
What is their ethnicity? (Consider diversity in your cast, if historically appropriate.) Did their family come from elsewhere or immigrate somewhere? Why?
What is their sexual orientation? Are they in love? How did they meet the person they love?
What are their favorite food(s) and books? Would they read Wall Street Journal or New York Post? Do they prefer ice cream or veggie burgers?
Do they smoke or drink? Why or why not?
What sort of exercise/activity/sport do they like? When did they first start it?
What is their socio-economic class? Has their family climbed up or down the social ladder in the past 100 years?
Where do they live, and with whom? Who are their closest relatives?
Do they have any political or religious leanings/passions?
What are their eccentricities? Quirks? Mannerisms? What are two of the physical signs they demonstrate when they are anxious or upset?
What do they want? Is it something money can buy? Where do they want to be three years from now?
What is something that scares them? What would be the worst thing that could happen to them? Do they like change or shrink from it?
What would they say is their worst memory from childhood? Or their best?
What event or aspect of childhood was most influential in making them who they are today?
Many of these questions push toward backstory. They are intended to uncover past experiences and motives, family and the past, which for many is the source of most of our baggage and our identity, our psychology and our assumptions (plausible or misguided) about the world.
Now, how can you keep track of all this? I use a Character List. Orson Scott Card makes the point that in the movie world, someone keeps track of the "bible" that keeps details consistent: if a cigarette is 2" long in the opening shot, it is shorter later in the scene. Each time you introduce a new character, enter the name. It helped me discover I have a propensity to name too many characters with last names beginning with S. I also tend to have too many characters who fidget with the fabric or leather on chair arms when they’re nervous--and too many with green eyes. This also helps keep track of traits so you don’t have a person with gray eyes in chapter 2 reappearing with blue eyes in chapter 19.
If these exercises help us figure out who the secondary characters are, and where they came from, the next exercise is to help us figure out how the secondary characters contribute to the world in your book.