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Don’t Ignore the Incidental Character with Nancy Weeks

I love secondary characters – they add so much to the story when used well. I love this post by Nancy – it highlights the most impactful ways to use them to draw your reader deeper into the story.

Don’t Ignore the Incidental Character

Why are secondary characters so forgettable?

Every story contains a character who has a short-term presence in the story. He exists in a few sentences, for one profile picture [1]reason, to help move the story along. This type of character is called a secondary character or an incidental character. Most readers will glance at the name, give it a momentary thought and then forget the character ever existed. The reader’s focus is on the main characters ― where it should be. But why can’t we give our readers a deeper focus? By developing our secondary characters as well as our hero and heroine, our readers will be drawn deeper into the world we have created.

In real life, all of us encounter many ‘secondary’ characters or acquaintances; the clerk ringing up our purchase at the grocery store, the busboy who removes the dishes from our table at a restaurant. But these people, who only exist in our lives for a few minutes, are real, and the way we interact with them ― a kind smile, a harsh word ― during this brief meeting can change lives. We walk away from that encounter, but it stays with us for a long time.

Often secondary characters can be forgettable. Why are these characters so easily forgotten by readers and deleted by editors? My answer: I didn’t bring them to life on the page. When my hero meets a secondary character, his reactions are influenced by the secondary character’s actions. If I truly understand who that secondary character is and know a little about his backstory, then I can make their brief interaction more emotional and real resulting in a deeper connection with the reader.

I build conflict into my stories by placing my hero and heroine in particularly traumatic events. It is crucial that I recognize that the main characters are not the only ones being affected. For instance, my first book, In the Shadow of Greed begins with a horrific attack of a young college student named Hanna Tu. The hero of Greed, Jason McNeil is sent off to the hospital to get the victim’s statement. Jason’s meeting with Hanna was the story I wanted to write. One of my secondary characters, Jason’s brother, Jared McNeil is ordered to the crime scene. In Greed, the reader learns very little about who Jared is and what kind of man he will become. In fact, Greed could have existed without him.

But Jared McNeil has his own story. He had to be as emotionally affected by the attack of the young student as Jason. The event will alter his view of the world for the rest of his life. By considering the secondary characters who were closely connected to the event, I inadvertently found myself with another storyline and the second book in my series, In the Shadow of Evil.

Let’s take a brief look at my most incidental character in Greed. Calista Martin appeared in the first chapter and her entire role in the story took less than a page. Calista argues with her best friend, Hanna Tu and then storms out of her apartment. Hanna is knocked against the wall from behind by the serial killer as soon as the door closes. We know what happens to Hanna because the event is played out on the pages in both novels, but we never again read anything about Calista.

When I created Calista, I realized that being the last person to speak to Hanna would change Calista’s life forever. At the time, Calista’s purpose was to give the reader a glimpse into Hanna’s life before everything changed. What I hadn’t realized was how much Calista’s character would haunt me. She morphed from an incidental character into the heroine of the third book, In the Shadow of Malice, and my planned four book series turned into a five book series.

As an author, I have the privilege of creating my characters and giving their stories the weight and purpose they deserve. In a small way, I’m trying to honor their humanity. As a romance novelist, it is vital I know exactly who my hero and heroine are and understand how they will grow as the story progresses. Taking the time to understand and develop all my characters, even those who might initially seem to be insignificant, I’m gaining a deep perceptive of the story and giving my readers a richer experience. As a side benefit, who knows, I have a leg up on my next story.


How do you use your incidental characters to make your story sing?

On Friday, Robin Covington discusses why she’s excited to explore a new romance sub genre.


In the Shadow of Malice cover 9781440580291 [2]Nancy C. Weeks has loved happy-ever-after romances since she was in her early teens. While still in college, she met and married her hero and spent the next several years honeymooning and working overseas. Today, she lives in suburban Maryland with her husband of more than thirty years. With her two grown children almost out of the nest, she loves spending her days on her deck writing as the local bird population keeps her company.
Links where you can find more about Nancy:
Website: http://nancycweeks.com [3]
Blog: http://nancycweeksauthor.blogspot.com [4]
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NancyCWeeksAuthor [5]
Twitter: @NancyCWeeks
Pinterest: Books by Nancy C. Weeks

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19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Don’t Ignore the Incidental Character with Nancy Weeks"

#1 Comment By Lori Schafer On March 5, 2014 @ 8:38 am

I love the way you’ve built a whole world around these incidental characters. It’s as if you’ve taken one person’s story and turned it into a whole network of related tales, which, of course, in the real world, it would be. Fascinating idea – I’m definitely going to spend some time thinking about it.

#2 Comment By Nancy C Weeks On March 5, 2014 @ 10:51 am

HI Lori!
Maybe it’s my psychology background, but I can’t help see the connections. One of the greatest compliments I have received is when a reader emails me and asked what are my plans for the other characters in my story. I made that secondary character so real, the reader is asking for more.

#3 Comment By Carrie Spencer On March 5, 2014 @ 9:04 am

Morning Nancy!

Thanks for an excellent post!

Do most of your incidental characters “haunt you” until they become a story? Or is it something you’re actually thinking about when you write them?


#4 Comment By Nancy C Weeks On March 5, 2014 @ 11:19 am

Hi Carrie,
I glad you enjoyed the post. The stories of the incidental characters in Greed all began to form in my head [haunting] before I finished the book, especially Jared’s story. By the time I wrote, THE END, I knew I had to write four more books. Since my hero in Greed, Jason McNeil had brothers, that is a natural fit for a series. But it was the women my brothers would fall in love with later on that really captured my attention. All played very small roles but they are all connected. It’s just not clear at first how. Ahhh, the magic of writing. I just love it.

#5 Comment By Terriann On March 5, 2014 @ 9:40 am

Hi Nancy…
I always wondered how an author creates a series. I guess I can understand how you can write a single story with the standard heroins and/or heroes, but it never made sense to me how an entire series is written. Do you know ahead of time which characters will be carried over into the 2nd, 3rd and 4th books of a series or is that decision made as you are writing?

#6 Comment By Nancy C Weeks On March 5, 2014 @ 11:31 am

Hi Terriann!
Deciding which story to write next and which characters from the previous book makes another presence in the new book is something I give a lot of thought. My critique partners and poor editor will tell you that I want everyone to return plus invite a couple new characters to party. BUT…that makes the story to crowded. Greed and Evil had to be written almost together. The next three books took more thought. I ended up mapping out the whole series on a timeline. I can’t tell how valuable that has been to keep it all straight.

#7 Comment By Joya Fields On March 5, 2014 @ 10:10 am

Great post, Nancy! You’re so right about those secondary characters. Congrats on your series. You are a dedicated writer! 🙂

#8 Comment By Nancy C Weeks On March 5, 2014 @ 11:34 am

Thank you, Joya! You are a wonderful writer and I have learned so much from you.

#9 Comment By Deborah O’Neill Cordes On March 5, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

Nancy, thank you for an excellent post on secondary characters. May you have continued success with your series!

#10 Comment By Nancy C Weeks On March 5, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

Thank you, Deborah!
I really appreciate you dropping by.

#11 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On March 5, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

Hi Nancy,

I see secondary characters are enablers. Through their interaction with the H/H, a reader gets a glimpse of how the H/H sees the world and treats others. I’m not a fan of lots of internal dialogue, so a secondary character, usually a best friend, is an ideal sounding board.

Great to have you with us!

#12 Comment By Nancy C Weeks On March 5, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

I’m honored to be here, Jennifer. Thank you for having me. When I finished my first manuscript and had no idea what to do with it, Romance University was the first blog I found. I have learned so much from this blog and can’t thank you all enough.

#13 Comment By Palessa On March 5, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

I totally agree. I had a secondary character that I built another story around and from that I have another couple I’m investigating. Totally exciting. Great Post Nancy!

#14 Comment By Nancy C Weeks On March 5, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

Hi, Palessa!
thank you. I so glad you enjoyed the post. I think writing is very exciting and I’m loving every minute of this new adventure.

#15 Comment By Sherry Marshall On March 5, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

My characters don’t do what I think they should! especially my secondary ones. They have a ‘life of their own’ and refuse to be written in any other way than the way they want to be written. Many of them are expanded in the book even though I hadn’t thought they would be. I see them as roles in the story and they take me into unexplored and unknown areas. I feel this is the best direction for my books rather than me writing from my conscious known mind. Thank you for a great blog.

#16 Comment By Nancy C Weeks On March 6, 2014 @ 9:17 am

Hi Sherry,
I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Boy do I understand how a character can take you in a direction you never considered. Maybe it’s something to do with our subconscious. I like to think of it as the magic of writing–those rare moments when the story and the characters we have created seem to take on a life of their own.

#17 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On March 6, 2014 @ 12:06 am

Great post! As a reader, sometimes I’ll stick to a series because I love the secondary characters so much. As a struggling writer, I’ve had trouble with secondary characters, though. Either they hijack the story or I lose focus on the main plot by trying to make the secondary characters come to life. I’m working on that balance, but it doesn’t come easy for me.

#18 Comment By Nancy C Weeks On March 6, 2014 @ 9:32 am

Hi Becke,
I know how easy it is to lose the focus of the story. While the secondary characters do need to be real on the page, they are there to to support the main characters. I’m in a wonderful critique group and they are great at pointing out when my scene is too crowded with secondary characters and I have lost my hero and heroine in the scene. It really can slow down the pace of the story. It is hard to hear that I need to rewrite a scene because I went off into Netherland, but I trust this group, and when I do the work, the scene is so much better. Thank you for stopping by and best of luck.

#19 Comment By Robyn LaRue On March 6, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

How wonderful to find this after a Twitter chat this week on secondary characters. The two cement each other nicely. 🙂 I get fascinated with my secondary characters and often use them in subplots. 🙂