When crafting a novel, it’s easy to focus primarily on the development of the protagonist and the primary characters. But remember, your protagonist does not live in isolation. The true mark of a skilled writer lies in their ability to breathe life into secondary characters as well—and in fact, these are sometimes the characters who leave a lasting impression on readers. Since these sidekicks, supporting cast, and background players can often elevate your story from good to extraordinary, let’s explore six effective strategies to create memorable secondary characters in a novel, drawing inspiration from both classic literary works and recent publications.
Give Them Unique Traits and Quirks
By providing secondary characters with distinct personality traits and quirks, you make them stand out in readers’ minds. These can range from physical attributes to mannerisms, speech patterns, or even unusual hobbies. An example from The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is Patroclus, who is depicted as gentle and compassionate, someone who is interested in the arts, plays the lyre, and has a talent for healing, as opposed to other players in the saga who are more brutish and arrogant. In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, the fifth husband, Harry Cameron, is portrayed as a flamboyant and charismatic hairstylist known for his extravagant fashion choices, including sequins, feathers, and bold colors, as well as his quick wit and unapologetic confidence. In the field of seven husbands, he’s an easy stand-out.
Provide Them with a Backstory
Developing a secondary character’s backstory is a way to add depth and complexity, making them more relatable and engaging. Their past experiences, motivations, and personal history often contributes to their current actions and choices. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the character of Boo Radley remains a mysterious figure throughout the narrative. His reclusive nature and the rumors surrounding his past create a sense of intrigue and curiosity that adds to the reader’s enjoyment. In The Great Gatsby, we’re intrigued by the enigmatic character of Jordan Baker, a professional golfer, particularly when we get hints about her mysterious past, her reputation for bending the rules, and her connection to the upper echelons of society.
Give Them Their Own Goals and Motivations
Remember that secondary characters may seem minor to you but they view themselves as the heroes of their own story. As such, they will have both external as well as internal goals they are trying to achieve, which may dovetail and support those of our novel’s protagonist or stand in direct opposition to them. For example, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the character of Gollum is driven by his insatiable desire for the One Ring. His singular motivation creates tension and adds welcome complexity to the narrative. Likewise, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Neville Longbottom emerges as a secondary character with a deep-rooted desire to prove himself. His quest to overcome his insecurities and stand up to adversity adds depth and relatability to his character, making him a beloved presence throughout the series.
Use Them to Advance the Plot
Secondary characters can be used to drive the plot forward by introducing conflicts, creating obstacles, or revealing crucial information. In doing so, they become more than just background decoration; they actively participate in the story’s development. In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the secondary character of Detective Rhonda Boney is a stand-in for the reader, someone whose pursuit of the truth propels the plot forward. Her tenacity and meticulous investigative skills create tension and heighten the sense of urgency, making her an essential part of the story’s unique twists and turns.
Create Dynamic Relationships with the Protagonist and Other Characters
A well-developed secondary character can serve as a great complement to the protagonist, offering a contrasting perspective, adding depth and complexity to the main character’s personality, or even providing emotional support. In The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the relationship between the protagonist, Skeeter Phelan, and her outspoken maid, Minny Jackson, forms a powerful bond that drives the narrative. Minny’s witty remarks, resilience, and unwavering loyalty create an unforgettable character dynamic that enriches the overall story. Likewise, Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series often provides a comedic and light-hearted contrast to Harry’s serious and stoic demeanor. His humor and loyalty bring a sense of levity to the story at the same time he serves as a contrast to Harry’s more intense personality.
Give Them a Memorable Voice and Dialogue
Crafting a distinct voice and dialogue for secondary characters makes them more memorable and recognizable. If you make their speech patterns, word choices, and typical ways of expressing themselves unique, it helps readers differentiate them from other characters. For example, in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Raymond is a kind-hearted IT technician with a distinctive voice and humorous dialogue. His quirky behavior, including his smoking habit and sloppy dress code, have made him a reader favorite. In Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, the secondary character of Jumpin’ is an elderly African-American man who becomes a father figure to the protagonist Kya. He speaks in a distinctive Southern dialect, peppered with colloquial expressions and wisdom passed down through generations. This not only creates a unique character but also lends a strong sense of authenticity to the story.
Secondary characters can also be used to add diversity to a story, showcasing different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. By doing so, they can challenge stereotypes and broaden reader’s understanding of the world. In Angie Thomas’s debut, The Hate U Give, Starr Carter’s best friend Hailey serves this function. Since Hailey is white and Starr is black, their friendship provides an opportunity for the author to explore issues of race and privilege. Using Hailey’s character as an example, she shows how even well-meaning people can be insensitive to issues of race, and how difficult it can be for people of different backgrounds to understand each other’s experiences.
So in the planning stages of your novel, take some time to invent interesting and memorable secondary characters in addition to your protagonist and antagonist. Flesh them out by giving them unique traits, compelling backstories, and individual goals so they become an integral part of your narrative. Whether they advance the plot, create dynamic relationships, or simply provide comic relief, these scene-stealers can elevate your storytelling to new heights. In fact, they’ve even been known to steal the show and earn themselves a sequel of their own.
Remember–even the beloved Huckleberry Finn started life as a supporting character.