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It Builds Character Part IV: How to write secondary characters

December 29, 2021
3 min read time

Writing secondary characters takes as much effort as writing your main character or characters. This is because, when they are well written, they become integral parts of your story's tapestry. When written poorly, they can hinder and detract from the main elements of your narrative. This is why secondary characters' function in the service of story is so important. 

Below is a step-by-step walkthrough of writing secondary characters.

Determine their purpose

The very first thing you must do when writing secondary characters is determine their purpose.

Common examples of purpose include:

  • To amplify themes 
  • Enhance internal or external conflict 
  • As catalysts for transformation 

A secondary character must have an integral purpose to your story. Without one, they will flail under the weight of the main character and the narrative. Audiences can sense meandering and meaningless secondary characters like hawks. It is imperative to keep in mind why you’re including these characters in your story.

Sometimes, stories are populated with secondary characters that are natural to the world of the narrative. For example, in the gritty, crime-riddled world of Batman, there are characters who are members of law enforcement. This is an example of organic secondary characters that make sense to the story. 

If your aim is to subvert audience expectations, think of inorganic secondary characters that can populate your story. Can they be a private investigator instead of a detective? Can they be a nurse or medical aide instead of a doctor?

Regardless of what you decide, the best writers know that every word reflects a purposeful choice. It’s the same with the characters who live in your story world.

Execute on their promise 

The second step after determining your characters’ purpose is to execute on the promise of that purpose. Character throughlines are just as important as narrative/plot throughlines. Draw them out with their intended purpose in mind. In Squid Game, notice how there were over 400 players at the top of the pilot? However, writer-creator Hwang Dong-hyuk zooms in on only a handful of characters who are secondary to Seong Gi-hun. This is because each character exists with intent and to varying degrees of purpose. 

To execute well, create a “purpose” throughline. Choose a secondary character. Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and write down their narrative beats on the left. On the right-hand side, write down their purpose for each corresponding beat. Do this exercise for all secondary characters. 

Revise and consolidate

After executing on their promise, go back and read your script as an editor. Can you consolidate, cut or combine secondary characters that duplicate their purpose? If you have two characters who amplify the same theme, for example, this can be done for effect, but most of the time it is a mark of excess that needs to be trimmed. Making a purpose throughline helps you see which characters are basically duplicates of themselves. Ask yourself, is this character standing alone on its own? Do they share some of the same goals as other characters? How do they carry themes and is it different from how my main character carries themes? Can the story work without this character in it?

Make them distinct

The second most important quality of a secondary character is distinction. Your secondary characters must be drawn differently in order to stand out in a sea of main, ancillary and extraneous characters. Making the choice to forgo this can be used for impact, but it has to be intentional. Make your secondary characters distinct by characterizing them with unique names, professions, proclivities, dialogue and personalities. Doing this will enrich the narrative. Even when there is verisimilitude between the main character and secondary characters (such as in West Side Story, which features multiple Sharks and Jets) there are key differentiators between them.   

Secondary characters are just as important as main characters. They can detract or amplify and done intentionally, they can help you build a rich narrative world. For more reading on how to up your character-writing game, read how to write a character-driven plot and using personal story to inform character.