Managing Secondary Characters

March 19, 2008 at 10:10 am | Posted in Bria, character, hero, writing | 2 Comments
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Secondary characters can make or break a story. They bring in the texturing that colors the line of your hero or heroine’s character. They can mirrors, foils, instigators, protectors, fall guys, scapegoats, cheerleaders, misdirectors – the list goes on and on.

So, if you have a great secondary character, how do you fulfill his destiny?

Just like in life, treat everyone well and they’ll respond. Your secondary character should have a full life and vivid life.

Here’s an example of how I brought my SC’s (Tane) backstory out while keeping the focus on the main character (Brennid, the crown prince.)

Tane reacts strongly to Brennid threatening to have the heroine ride with him. The heroine – obviously – is a bit annoyed by Tane’s revulsion. Brennid keeps the heroine with him and tells her why:

Tane had Brennid’s older brother at the rear of the line with him when they were attacked and the then-crown prince was killed.

Having Brennid tell the story, we hear his pain and how the death of his beloved older brother nearly destroyed him – BUT we read between the lines and learn Tane’s motivation for his obsessive need to protect Brennid.

Brennid stays the focus, we learn a bit more of his why/where/how/when and at the same time divulge Tane’s number one objective and it’s reasoning.

Speaking of objectives – SCs should have no more than one personal objective and it should relate to the MC in some way.

Tane’s personal objective is to protect the prince (the main character.) Everything he does on the page is to that end.

Tane has his own love interest, an interesting backstory and some twists and turns along the way that have made him a favorite with my readers. But a book can only be so long and only belong to so many, so most of Tane’s non-Brennid related stuff happens off the page.

How do we keep them in line? Well, I’ll be honest. One of my favorite chapters was Tane reacting to his love interest’s dismissal. I played by the rules and kept the Main Characters there and involved, but in the end the focus was on Tane, it didn’t further the plot – or anything for that matter – it was just a lovely peek into a behind the scenes romance.

And so it got cut.

The story as a whole became tighter. Tane’s desperation became something real to me – not only to protect Brennid, but to keep Demia at his side. Which helps make later actions when he allows Brennid to misbehave make sense as it also brings him closer to Demia.

So write the scenes and then cut them – but know them. They’re just as real as your main character.

I’m going to paraphrase (hopefully well and hopefully correctly) the amazing Suzanne Brockmann: Pretend all your characters are standing on a line together. In this scene/chapter/book whoever has the spotlight on him takes a step forward and then another and so on. Everyone on that line steps forward as well. We may not know what they are doing or where they are, but time is consistent (something you won’t hear a fantasy writer admit to all the time) and no one is standing around waiting for the hero to invite them back onto the page.

If you ever get a chance to hear Suzanne speak about managing Secondary and Tertiary characters in a series RUN, don’t walk, to sign up for it (or buy the tape). She changed the way I think about timing, involvement, activity and focus.

Here’s one more way to think about it: We all have that friend. You know the one. She’s off living her life and only calls when she needs something. But the most annoying thing about her is she assumes that while she’s having a full life, she assumes you’re waiting around to hear about her “adventures” and have nothing at all interesting to share. She’s that person that asks you “How are you?” but means “Ask me how I am?”

Don’t be that friend to your Secondary Characters.
Now, Go Write



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  1. As usual, great insights to be found here. I love series/related books where you get to know everyone better the more you read of them. The focus may be shifted to another couple, but you don’t lose old friends completely. Perspective and Priority.

    Just tell that to Barrington. *grumble*

    BTW, I have a little something for you ladies over at my blog. Don’t worry, this is a nice tagging. đŸ™‚ I thought it would tie in well with your Friday posts too.

  2. Thanks Kaige – and thanks for the “little something” – That’s a great way to put it, shifting priorities. Nice!

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