Posted On July 24, 2013 by Print This Post

The Primary Purpose of Secondary Characters by Reese Ryan

Where would RU be without our fabulous Visiting Professors and our wonderful followers? Today, I’m extra pleased to introduce one of RU’s most stalwart supporters, debut author Reese Ryan. Reese talks about the development of secondary characters and how their presence can enhance your main character.

Welcome, Reese! And a HUGE congratulations on your debut!  

None of us exists in a vacuum. Neither should our characters.

We have friends, family, bosses, co-workers, and neighbors. Whether we love them or hate them, they frequently impact our lives in ways big and small. A workmate suggests that we try a sandwich from the new deli up the block. The influence or example of a parent leads us to pursue our chosen career. The teasing of a sibling or classmate creates a negative body image.

We’re products of both nature and nurture. We might be born with a particular disposition, but our interaction with the people in our lives shapes our self-concept, worldviews, habits, coping mechanisms, and life decisions.

Each interaction we have with another being reveals a little about our own character. We learn the most about ourselves from our encounters with the villains in our lives. The bad boss. The tempting co-worker. The rude neighbor.

Well-developed secondary characters—whether good, bad, or indifferent—shed light on our understanding of the primary characters in a more striking manner than narration alone.

So how can we create a cast of characters that adds to the story rather than distracts from it?

Know the Secondary Character’s Purpose

As writers we are taught to ask ourselves whether each scene advances the plot. If not, it serves no purpose. We should ask a similar question about secondary characters.

What purpose does this secondary character serve?

Tertiary characters (waitresses, cab drivers, store clerks) might play a very small role and not be seen again. However, more time and ReeseRyaneffort goes into the development of secondary characters. The investment must pay off for us, and for the reader. So make sure that the character is worth the investment.

In my debut novel, Making the First Move, there are several secondary characters—primarily my heroine’s family. Melanie’s mother—Ellie Gordon—is an important secondary character. Ellie reveals essential information through her dialogue with Melanie throughout the book. At least twice she reveals information of which the heroine is unaware.

Here’s an exchange from early in the story:

“I miss him.” I open the fridge in search of something comforting and sweet.

“You two were so close. Your sister and I were always a little jealous,” she says quietly. “I know your father was your hero, Melanie, but you can’t replace him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Your relationships don’t work out because you’re waiting for a miracle that’s never going to happen.”

“Like what?” My forehead is tight. The muscles of my face contract into a scowl.

“You’re waiting for someone as perfect as you think your father was. That’s why you’re always disappointed.”

Melanie isn’t consciously aware of this behavior. Nor does she agree with her mother’s assessment. The story is told completely from her viewpoint, so without Ellie’s character we wouldn’t be aware of this.

Even without dialogue, we can learn a lot about the heroine from her reaction or assessment of a secondary character. In this case, Melanie runs into her ex, Jaxson Payne, whom she believes she’s over. Her reaction to him tells a different story:

I freeze, a wooden smile plastered on my face. Did she say Payne? I focus on the man as he turns to greet me. I cannot believe my remarkably bad fortune. Cleveland may not be a major metropolis, but it isn’t Mayberry either. This town is big enough that I shouldn’t have to run into my ex.

Jaxson Payne flashes a repentant smile. One that begs me not to cause a scene or out him as the complete and utter jerk he is. He’s as handsome as ever. His skin looks smooth and warm, like melted dark chocolate. His tongue juts out and skims across his lower lip as he presses his wide mouth and full lips into that damned spine-dissolving smirk I’d fallen prey to far too many times. Framed by thick, neat brows, Jaxson’s dark eyes gleam with a smile even more sinister than the one on those…oh-so-kissable lips. He still sports a low Caesar cut, only he’s ditched the brush waves.

My hands twitch at my side, remembering how I’d once run them over his soft, ebony hair. His familiar scent—masculine yet utterly delicious—fills my nostrils. An involuntary gasp escapes my lips as feelings of longing and hatred battle inside my chest and prickle my eyelids. I seriously want to bitch-slap myself for feeling anything more than pure, unadulterated contempt for this man. My legs threaten to give way beneath me as I tremble slightly, frozen in place.

Through her interactions with her ex, Jax, we discover that Melanie has some unresolved feelings that must be addressed if her relationship with Raine will succeed.

Know Your Secondary Characters’ Background and Motives

Let’s say our hero lives next door to a cranky, elderly gentleman who complains whenever our hero has friends over for a backyard cookout. It’s easy to turn this character into a caricature. The old man who complains about “young’uns these days” and shakes an angry fist.  But why is the man so angry?

Here are a few possibilities:

Option #1: The man is justifiably upset because the hero is playing music too loud, or too late in the evening. In this case we learn that the hero is either thoughtless or inconsiderate.

Options #2: The neighbor is a widower and hearing the party next door reminds him of how very alone he is. Perhaps the hero senses this and invites the man over or spends time visiting with him over the back fence periodically. In this case we learn that the hero is insightful and compassionate.

Option #3: The neighbor has an underlying motive. He torments the hero at every opportunity because he is aware that a new highway will be built in their community and he is scheming to buy the hero’s childhood home so he can sell it to the state for a considerable profit. Now the secondary character serves as an antagonist and helps move the plot forward.

Well-crafted interactions between the main character and a secondary character can provide glimpses into the main character or move the plot forward. And while it is important for the writer to know the background and motives of our secondary characters, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we must reveal all of the details of that character’s backstory. Often, it is enough for us to simply understand the character’s motives.

Give Secondary Characters Depth

Even villains have a moment of decency. Maybe he cuts his elderly neighbor’s lawn or cries like a baby when his dog dies of old age. On the other hand, the best friend might be wonderful and supportive, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her faults. Whether a secondary character is inherently good or bad, give them a few traits that will make them feel more real. More human.

So my questions are: Do you enjoy stories that include a cast of secondary characters? Or do you find secondary characters distracting? Who are your favorite secondary characters?  


Author Lynne Marshall joins us on Friday, July 26th. 


MakingTheFirstMoveHere’s a peek at Reese’s debut novel, Making the First Move (Carina Press), which releases on July 22nd.

Melanie Gordon has spent the past five years obsessing over her career to dull the pain of a devastating breakup and the loss of her father. When she receives the promotion that could be her big break she must return to her hometown to face her past while leaving behind the man who could be her future.

Selfless (and insanely sexy) philanthropist, Raine Mason, is committed to his cause. But his passion for rescuing high-risk young males from the road to disaster is fueled by his own tragic past.

When Raine tries to take their casual friendship to sizzling new heights, her one-way ticket to Cleveland is already booked. A night of passion leaves them both wanting more and they agree to a mostly long-distance relationship. But a dark secret from his past may shatter any hope of a future for them.

To celebrate the release of her debut, Reese is giving away a grand prize that includes a $25 Amazon or Barnes & Noble Gift Card and the following e-books: Making the First Move by Reese Ryan; The Winning Season by Alison Packard; Knowing the Score by Kat Latham; Personal Assets by Kelsey Browning; and Derby Girl by Tamara Morgan.

To enter, click on the blog tour page.


Bio: Reese Ryan writes sexy, contemporary fiction filled with colorful characters and sinfully-sweet romance. She secretly enjoys torturing her heroines with family and career drama, reformed bad boys, revealed secrets, and the occasional identity crisis, but always rewards them with a happily ever after.

To learn more about Reese, visit her website and her Amazon Author Page, or connect with her via FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.



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12 Responses to “The Primary Purpose of Secondary Characters by Reese Ryan”

  1. Hey Reese, It’s so great having you on RU as a VP. Congrats on the release of your debut novel. Love the cover and excerpts!


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | July 24, 2013, 7:48 am
  2. Morning Reese!

    It’s great to have you here as a VP! =)

    I love books with lots of secondary characters! Katie Lane writes a marvelous series of books with secondary characters in a small town that are simply CRAZY….they just kill me! Darynda Jones’ books have Cookie, the secretary and Uncle Bob – both of whom play off the main character so well I can see them in my mind. And Grandma Mazur from the Evanovich books? lol…I giggle just thinking about her – she leads Stephanie into one situation after another. What a quiet life Stephanie would have had without Grandma!

    Awesome book cover Reese! Thanks so much for being with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | July 24, 2013, 8:48 am
  3. Hi Reese,

    I like it when secondary characters are people who have a long history with the main characters. Those who knew them when they were younger, knew their families, and keep their deepest secrets.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | July 24, 2013, 9:36 am
  4. Hi Reese – HUGE congratulations! I love it when debut authors visit. The timing of your post couldn’t be better for me. I’m revising a story and trying to decide if one of the secondary characters is necessary, and if I need two tertiary characters at all. Your post helps a lot!This never gets easier…

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 24, 2013, 10:08 am
    • Thanks, Becke! I’m glad the post was helpful. You’re right about writing not getting easier. It’s a side effect of our constant growth as writers. That just means you’re even more awesome today than you were then. :-)

      Posted by Reese Ryan | July 24, 2013, 10:18 am
  5. Hi, Reese!

    I’m a big advocate of secondary characters. Using them is a great way to fill in the blanks about the main character and as you stated, add dimension to the H/H. I have to be careful because sometimes, they take over the story!

    So excited about your debut! Thanks so much for blogging with us today and for your support of RU.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 24, 2013, 2:45 pm
  6. Thanks Jen! It’s been my pleasure to support RU. This is such a great resource for authors! It’s an honor to be a VP today. ;-)

    Those pesky secondary characters do try to take over. Even when I resist their efforts I often find myself thinking about them long after the story is over. What will happen to them next? Not surprisingly, one of my secondary characters from Making the First Move gets her own story in Love Me Not, releasing in December.

    Posted by Reese Ryan | July 24, 2013, 4:33 pm
  7. Thanks, this has been very helpful! I have a secondary character that’s trying to take over. I need to tone her down!

    Posted by Laurie Evans | July 31, 2013, 10:33 pm

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