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Most of us understand what it takes to make the central characters in a story work. We know we have to work out motivations, shade in the greys, and ensure they have three dimensions so they’re real and convincing to the reader. But there are many more characters in your story than the central ones, and it’s very easy to slip into bad habits with your supporting cast. The support cast (secondary characters) are often overlooked by the author, and as a result their personalities can descend into cliché.
These characters may serve only one purpose, so rather than filling them out you will go for the stereotype: your snooping secretaries, your cowboys with black hats, or your whores with hearts of gold. But when a secondary character comes along who’s two dimensional with no motivation, it breaks the spell for the reader.
In this fortnight’s lesson you will learn how to become aware of two dimensional secondary characters and how to fill them out. Through a series of videos, lessons and exercises, we’ll turn a spotlight on your supporting cast, so that they can be just as well-rounded and complex as your central characters.
TOPIC ONE: Secondary Characters – A Video From Kim
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TOPIC TWO: How To Identify A Secondary Character
Secondary characters are also known as ‘supporting cast’, a term taken from film. Supporting cast are different from ‘speaking extras’, who only say a line or two, generally in a single scene. Secondary characters have several key features: they are present in five scenes or more with the viewpoint character, are a non-view point character themselves, and/or exert a large influence on a viewpoint character’s world.
The last point is worth noting, because a potential support cast character may have never meet the viewpoint character at all, but still exert a large influence over the viewpoint character’s actions. For example, a character whose father skipped out on the family when they were two, or a psychopath that killed a beloved mother. In both these cases, the trauma of the secondary character’s influence will have a major impact on the main character. If this secondary character is cliché and two dimensional, the main character’s actions are going to appear out of proportion and hollow.
You need to give the support cast the kind of material, dialogue and actions that would allow the actor playing that character in a movie to win best supporting actor. Would a fine actor like Cate Blanchett or Geoffrey Rush have enough meat to sink their teeth in to? If your supporting characters are as well-rounded and complex as your central characters, your whole story benefits.
Once you have identified who is a secondary character and who is only a speaking extra, it’s time to see if your supporting cast are pulling their weight.
For each viewpoint character, take a separate sheet of paper and draw a bubble map as follows:
- Put the viewpoint character’s name in a bubble in the centre of the page,
- Put the names of the supporting cast in bubbles around it. These are the characters they interact with quite regularly: Sidekicks, parents, friends, enemies etc.
- Next to the bubbles write what the characters function or role is. Who are they? Don’t merely describe them as, ‘Larry’s wife’. You need to articulate what role they play in the story. What is their function in relation to the central character? So instead of ‘Larry’s Wife’, she’s, ‘The person who Larry keeps his secrets from’.
From this bubble map you will immediately see who has fallen into stereotype, who is behaving in a baffling manner, or who is just plain boring.
Once you’ve clarified these roles you’ll also see which characters are repeating a function. Take Lord of The Rings for example. While this is a fantastic series of books, Tolkien had some constantly repeated secondary characters: lots of wise old men and comic relief sidekicks. So if you find your main character has four sassy girlfriends she likes to go shopping with, reduce that to one, or two sassy girlfriends (if they can be differentiated). Use this bubble map to identify the supporting character traits and clarify if they can be collapsed into one character.
Now you need to start giving these secondary characters the kind of attention you’d give to central characters. How well do you know them? Could you name their greatest fear? Their most burning desire? Think about how they would feel if this story were their story. You don’t have to include this perspective in the story, but know it for yourself. It will help you make the secondary character’s actions and reactions more consistent and convincing.
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TOPIC THREE: The Role Of A Secondary Character
The secondary character occupies the space between the main character and setting. They are as much a part of the setting as the cast. Central characters who are brilliantly developed will suffer if the story is flimsy beneath them. Readers like to get the feeling that this world and people existed before they came along, and that they will go on existing after the book is finished. In essence your novel needs to be a slice of something ‘real’. We like the idea they have lives beyond what we see and even if you don’t tell the reader, you need to know yourself as this knowledge will affect your manuscript in different ways.
Find ways to allow secondary characters to breath a bit more and bring more reflection and nuance to the scenes your main character is in. The best way to do this is to make sure you really know why the character acts the way they do in this story. Their motivations are driven by their unique personalities; they are not external and arising at the author’s convenience.
Why does that secretary snoop? Why is she so curious? What is it about her relationship to the central character that makes her think she can look in his office when he’s not there? What is she going to do if she finds what she’s looking for?
If secondary characters are lavished with the same kind of development as a viewpoint character—even if a great deal of that background information never makes it to the page—that central character has a secure place to stand.
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There are many more characters in your story than the central ones, and it’s very easy to slip into bad habits, riddling your supporting cast with clichés. While these characters may serve only one purpose, if they’re two dimensional with no motivation, it will break the spell for the reader.
This exercise will:
- Help you develop a backstory for one of your secondary characters and,
- Identify where you need to weave in extra detail into the manuscript.
WHAT TO DO
Choose one supporting, non-viewpoint character and make a few notes about their motivations, hopes, desires, and off-stage life and post them in the Secondary Characters Forum for your peers to comment on and workshop. In your forum post answer these questions:
- What is this character’s motivation for their behaviour?
- What are their hopes and desires?
- What do they fear most?
- What do they do when your viewpoint character is not around?
- What’s their perspective of the main character’s story?
- Identify all the scenes this character appears in. Jot down one or two ideas for weaving in a few extra details about them into the manuscript.
Examine the secondary character profiles of your peers; have they noted details you may have missed? Is there something you are curious about when reading the profiles? Ask those questions and get your peers thinking about things that may allow them to build a more robust character. Do they answer the question the way you’d expect?
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