Secondary Characters: What makes them?

Top of your head....someone says, "Make a list of "great" secondary characters" who do you think of? (You really can make a list. I did.) Here's a few from my list, which includes TV and books.

Hagrid (Harry Potter)
Finnick (Hunger Games)
Bobby (Supernatural)
Alice (Twilight)
Mickey Smith (Doctor Who)
Matt (The Vampire Diaries)
Magnus Bane (Mortal Instruments/Infernal Devices)
Ethel (Downton Abbey)

Each of these characters are very different, but they all serve the same purpose. Let's make a list of what some of those common threads are. (You could even, if you wanted, make an individual list for each character.) I'm only going to use a few here too.
  • Bring some sort of conflict to the story 
    • Maybe this "conflict" is personal within the character's own arc. Maybe it's in direct opposition of the protagonist. Maybe it's more that it's a past reflection of the protagonist. Perhaps this character knows something that the protagonist doesn't or knows how to get what's needed. Whatever the purpose, a secondary character usually brings conflict. My main thought on this that every character is a person with his or her own wants and desires, and since he/she is a person, he/she is flawed to some degree/has something to offer--be that good or bad.
  • Offer support for protagonist
    • How does a secondary character add conflict and support? Well, two ways. One, there can be just a character who is conflict (antagonist) and one who is support. BUT even an antagonist needs all these things I'm listing. Plus, whatever is happening, it's happening in support of the protagonist's story line. What does that mean? Well, if I used Voldemort as a great secondary character, he would still fall under all these points I'm listing here. He's clearly the antagonist, but he's adding conflict--which ultimately builds Harry's story. Without Voldemort, we wouldn't care about Harry Potter. Thus, he's offering support for the protagonist.
  • Have complexity
    • Can you always predict/understand what a secondary character is going to do? Like...take Finnick or Mickey Smith. Can anyone say they new (insert Finnick spoiler here) when he did it in Catching Fire? Or can anyone say they new Mickey was going to show up when he does and do what he does/how he does it? I don't think so. I think our characters should be complex enough to surprise us.
  • Have motivation beyond the main character's goals
    • Again, this ties into above where he/she is her own person. This can add to the subplots and conflict and push the story in new directions, but I think it all needs to be very clear.
  • Have their own story arc
    •  This is the most important piece of all this. Every character must have a story arc. If all the things before this point are reached, then the arc builds itself. But if there is no arc for a character, then why does the character exist? What's the purpose? Does he/she need to be in your story? Because if they're not adding anything to move the story along (which is what arc does) then why are they there?
One of penultimate examples in TV. Each one: story arc.
This is not, in any way, all encompassing. And honestly, I know I'm not the only person who talks about this. In fact, check out these three posts about secondary characters: 1) how they add depth to protagonist 2) how they add to a story and 3) 3 questions to ask a secondary character. Characters are something I'm learning more about while I'm watching all the TV and revising a novel.

Characters matter. Everyone from Harry Potter to Voldemort to Bellatrix to Mrs. Norris (the cat). Make sure you're using them effectively.

Did you make a list? Who are some other secondary characters you've come up with? Do they (or the ones that you're writing) follow these "guidelines"? What are some other things that make great secondary characters?

1 comment:

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