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The Importance Of Secondary Characters In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

Secondary characters in a novel are as important as the primary characters. Like the vegetables accompanying a piece of grilled steak, they provide colour, fibre, nutrition, variety, contrast, visual interest and complete the meal. Without them it would just be a lump of steak on your plate. So unless you’re writing something like Waiting for Godot, it’s imperative your other cast members get the full treatment.

By full treatment I mean they must be developed, in your mind and in your background notes primarily, and portrayed in the story in a more subtle way. In other words, not as much back story as the main players. The reader doesn’t need to know but, as their creator, you most certainly do. This gives them a wholeness and sense of authenticity in all their actions and words. Otherwise they can be seen as simple plot devices which help drive the main action. Which they are, you just don’t want them to appear as if they are.

As with the main cast, you need a sense of their physical appearance and their driving motivations but they must never overshadow the main characters and not descend into caricature. Caricature is an easy trap to fall into. Wikipedia says, ‘In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.’ A character like this tends to be unbelievable and sounds a false note in the overall story. They can be enormous fun to write, think of Mr Collins and Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but getting the essence of their humanity beneath the quirkiness is vital.

Once you know who they are you can set them to work. There are the secondary characters who support the main character’s storyline, then there are extras. Have a bit of comic fun with the extras but pare it back the more central the characters are to the story. They may be central to a subplot which echoes the themes of the central plot or they may provide an opportunity for conflict which helps strengthen a major character. Whatever their function, they must be as believable and human as the main cast. To return to Mr Collins, the snobbish clergyman set to inherit the Bennett’s home thus depriving the four Bennett girls of their only fortune. He is insufferable in his snobbery, his obsequious attitude to Lady de Bourgh is nauseating, yet he sincerely wishes to help the Bennett girls. His impulse is generous, although comical and repellant to others. It’s that subtle quality which leavens his pompousness and quietly rounds him out to full humanity. I mean, if Charlotte Lucas is prepared to marry him he can’t be the complete fool he sometimes presents as.

Every character is vital to the ultimate fabric of the story. You can’t skimp on development because they aren’t the stars of the show. Give them a subtle depth and they’ll reward you by carrying story, plot and theme to the last page.


Phillipa Fioretti’s author website:

Phillipa Fioretti’s bio page


The Book of LoveThe Fragment of Dreams     Half Moon BayStillwater CreekThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteGirl Saves Boy

Writing Novels in Australia

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I really struggle with secondary characters. How much detail do you put into a description of them? You might describe a main character from head to toe but do you do the same for a secondary character? And, if the secondary character is in conflict with a main character, how much of ‘their side’ of the conflict do you allow through, or do you remain completely sympathetic to the main character?

    November 19, 2013
  2. Hi little miss w, I tend to use one or two sentences for a secondary when introducing them. For example, in my new book (January 14) the main character meets a couple of Italian policemen who are crucial to the plot, but we don’t need to know anything about them other than how she sees them – “They had the wary, hard manner of men who habitually hid any suggestion of natural vulnerability or generosity.” This gives the reader a lead into visualising them but doesn’t swamp with detail.
    For a secondary character who is more of a player, and we see more of them, I write ” (it was) … Tyler from the Stromboli hike, belly straining at a Budweiser t-shirt, iPod headphones dangling down his chest and a baseball cap on backwards in that goofy way Americans wear their caps. ” Then most of who they are and what motivates them then comes from what they do and say.
    If a secondary is in conflict with a main character – and I’m generalising here – you have to remember your main is the main. S/he’s the one we are following and investing in, and too much irrelevance will detract from the narrative flow, and you don’t want that. You could have your main character express sympathy for the secondary’s side – if you think they are the sympathetic type. If they aren’t then don’t. Even if the secondary has a valid reason for their actions, and may indeed be right, it’s the main character who holds the stage. How they deal with the secondary shows us who they are and what motivates them, even if they are in the wrong. You may want to look into ‘unreliable narrators’ or look closely at some TV serials such as Mad Men or The Sopranos to see how the writers use secondaries. And of course, Jane Austen is brilliant with her characters.

    November 20, 2013

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