(This posting originally appeared on The Melt-Ink Pot)
Sorry for the late posting this week. I’ve been fighting off a cold. Still not sure whether I’m winning or losing, but that’s beside the point.
This week, I want to blather on for a bit about secondary characters. You know, those characters in your story who need to be there to make things work — the sidekicks, the younger sisters, the best friends, all those characters who help us reveal plot and give our main characters someone to talk to besides each other (and themselves) all the time.
Secondary characters don’t generally get as much attention as the main characters, for obvious reasons — if they did, they’d be main characters, right? But it’s still important to flesh them out enough to make them real, so that it makes sense for your main characters to interact with them.
So since they don’t get as much screen time, so to speak, it’s even more important that the time they do get really counts. Some things I’ve found that help are:
1) Keep descriptions concise. You don’t need to describe every last freckle on your MC’s best friend’s nose, but it might be nice to know that she has freckles. And a nose, for that matter.
2) Stereotypes = cardboard characters = boring. While it might be tempting to paint the county sheriff who just pulled your hero over in Dukes of Hazzard colors…hasn’t that been done to death? Why not try something a little unusual? Give him an Aussie accent, or make her look like she’s seventeen — with a steel core.
3) Give them a little backstory — even if it’s just in your notes. The orphan your heroine just pulled out of the rubble of a building after an earthquake might look like an ordinary twelve year old — but what if he has a slide rule collection, plays the theremin, and took first at last year’s county science fair? All of a sudden, he’s a different kid, right? Which is not to say that you should be quite that extreme, but give the reader a mental tag to attach to the character, so that when he shows up again later, they can think, “Oh, right, Theremin Kid, I remember him!”
4) Have a clear vision of who the character is and what they’re doing in your story. Dad’s new wife might come on like a wicked stepmother at first, but what if there’s more to her than that? What if she turns out to be the one person who can help the MC solve the mystery? Or what if she’s really a spy? Keep these things in mind whenever this character is “on screen,” so you can keep the character consistent.
But, you ask, how do you keep track of all of these things? Well, for every story I write, I start an Excel spreadsheet with columns for the character’s name, age, hair and eye colors, distinguishing features, and a brief history. In my current WIP, which takes place on a college campus, I added extra columns showing everyone’s major and what year they’re in (if they’re students). You still probably won’t catch everything on your first draft, but as you edit, go back and revisit these notes to remind yourself what you planned to do with this character, and check to see whether all of his/her actions still fit.
What are some other tricks and tips people have for working with secondary characters?