Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Create Useful Secondary Characters.

Secondary characters need an agenda too.


 —we all have them—those things that we want to achieve. Could be anything from getting the house ready for company to writing a novel. Whatever they are, they are important to us and they influence how we react to others around us. Motive plus goal gives us our agendas.

Writers all know that characters in novels need agendas. There are multitudinous articles on how to give your protagonists and antagonists motives plus goals. Attempts to fulfill the agendas and the resulting failures drive plots forward, shape characters and add tension.

But what about the walk-ons, those secondary characters needed to flesh out the world of the main characters? Don’t overlook the opportunities of giving these people their own agendas. That will not only allow your characters to play out their story against a complex background, but also will make your secondary characters memorable.

Elizabeth George brought this concept to a panel at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference about twelve years ago. In one of her Inspector Linley books, Barbara Havers has been punched in the face and has black eyes and bandaged nose. Barbara needed to mull over what has happened for the readers to know more. She’s sitting in a coffee shop thinking.

In order to prevent a boring thought session, Ms. George gave the waitress a supporting agenda. The waitress is considering getting a ‘nose-job’ and assumes that Barbara’s injuries are the result of a surgery. The resulting conversation and Barbara’s internal thoughts revealed information in a lively and colorful way thanks to the waitress’s agenda.

Everyone has something they want. Be aware of those obvious or hidden agendas and look for opportunities to make even your secondary characters contribute to the character’s journey and development. Doing so is one way to make your additional characters memorable.

What agendas do your secondary characters bring to your story?


  1. In Between Land and Sea, Kendra, one of my secondary characters, actually appeared in my dreams. Originally, I had intended to have her appear only once but she assumed a pivotal role, halfway through the narrative. She's a mermaid psychic who helps all the other mermaids adapt to life on earth. I'm thinking of featuring her in a future novel.

    1. It is interesting, isn't it, how our brains cough up new characters for us. Sometimes for a pivotal once-only visit, and others like you Kendra cry out for their own story to be told. I for one look forward to that book.

  2. Writing romance, I often use secondary characters for conflict. Often their agenda is devious or just wrong for my hero/heroine. I agree with Joanne that secondary characters can impose themselves into our minds and provide a need to write their story, but I try to be careful they don't take over the story.

    1. Yes, they can add extra conflict or serve as a foil for out main characters. And we do sometimes have to keep a tight rein on them so they don't take over until they get their own book.

  3. Agree that the secondary characters help make the novel. Can't have much to their development in shorter fiction, but every character has a past, an agenda and wants their own story to be told. Some I manage to repress, others start shouting for scene time. This also happens in various tv programs. Lorne the singing demon from Angel was supposed to be a one episode character. Penelope Garcia, the computer guru, was another.