Posted On October 20, 2017 by Print This Post

Making Minor Characters Fresh: #Writing Advice by Chris Eboch

Chris Eboch finishes off the week with a post on secondary characters.

When creating a new story, you probably spend the most time developing your main character, or perhaps your hero and heroine equally. They are, after all, the stars of your show, more important than any other actors. But don’t neglect the rest of the cast. Major secondary characters should also be realistic, complex, and fresh.

Chances are you’ll have some minor characters who don’t have an important role. It’s easy to grab a recognizable “type” – the geeky scientist, Type A businessman, difficult mother, overprotective brother. Because these types are so familiar, the reader recognizes the character with a few quick clues, saving time. That’s sometimes a good thing.

However, beware negative stereotypes – the ones based on race, gender, religion, size, and so forth, which are hurtful or reinforce prejudice. Please don’t make all your “good” characters slender and attractive, and all of your villains ugly and overweight.

Not All Grandmothers Have White Hair

You might also twist a character type to make your story world more interesting. Maybe you want your heroine to turn to a grandmother for comfort. Easy – Gran is a sweet, white-haired lady who bakes cookies. We recognize the type, she fulfills her role, and such people do exist.

But she’s hardly memorable. Think of the grandmothers you know (or are). Some may be in their 40s, while others are much older. They might be retired or hold a variety of jobs. Their hobbies and interests could range from crafts to social activism to extreme sports. They may live with a spouse or partner, other family members, a friend, a professional caregiver, or alone. The real world is full of variety. Try making your minor characters as fresh and surprising as the people you know.

Sandra Levy Ceren draws on real life for some secondary characters. “In the Dr. Cory Cohen psychological mystery series, the protagonist discusses her psychological diagnoses and treatment plans with her best friend and colleague, Betty – a secondary character based on my best friend, a wonderful woman who died of cancer much too early, long ago. I keep her alive in my novels, often asking myself, ’What would Amy say about this?’”

Maybe your fictional Granny dyes her hair black and gets donuts from the corner gas station. Maybe she’s an archaeology professor whose house is full of strange artifacts. Maybe she’s a bowling fanatic who consoles her granddaughter over bowling alley burgers. Maybe she’s an immigrant who only speaks her native language. As you develop her, some quirky characteristics may spark new story ideas. Regardless, Gran is now more memorable than that old cliché!

Causing Trouble

Your cast of secondary characters may include family members, friends, bosses, aliens, mythical creatures, or even pets. Some will be nice. Some will be annoying. Ideally, one or more should be trouble.

Joanna Campbell Slan shared her approach to secondary characters. “I chart out the arc for each of them before I begin a new book in my Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series. Since each person has his/her own problems/drama in life, this adds more tension to the overall book.”

Mary Reed, co-author of the John the Lord Chamberlain historical mystery series, says, “Enrich secondary characters by giving them specific interests or skills. But don’t stop there. Use these skills or interests to drive the plot forward or to cast light on other characters.”

Even well-meaning secondary characters can make your main character’s life more complicated. For example, Mom may pressure the heroine to marry the wrong man, because Mom wants grandchildren. Bosses can add challenges, whether it’s pressuring the main character to do something illegal for the company or simply demanding long work hours which interfere with other goals.

Don’t forget friends! One could turn out to be using the hero or secretly trying to interfere with his plans. Even good friends can give bad advice or provide distractions with their own emotional problems.

Check Your Work

To see if you are making the most of your secondary characters, go through your work in progress and list every major one. What is their basic personality and role in the story? What do they want? Then ask:

Could I make this character more interesting?

How could these characters be causing problems, even if they don’t mean to?

If the character is already causing trouble, could those problems escalate?

Secondary characters won’t appear as often as your main character, but important ones should have a strong and consistent role. Make an outline of your story, either before or after you have a draft. Make notes of where secondary characters appear, and highlight them in different colors on the outline to create a visual map of how often someone appears. If you note an imbalance, see where else you might bring in that character.

My book Advanced Plotting offers detailed advice on how to analyze your outline or draft. Learn more and download The Plot Outline Exercise in a form you can edit and reuse at my website’s For Writers page.

If you don’t have many secondary characters, consider adding some, space permitting, to add complications and drama. However, make sure any newcomers fit smoothly into the plot and don’t feel like they are shoved in to cause trouble.

Interesting and believable secondary characters help reveal your main character. Jaden Terrell, author of the Jared McKean private detective series, says, “I wanted to explore the life of a man who seems on the outside to be a stereotypical tough guy, but who also has a complex emotional landscape and a deeply compassionate side. I don’t need to tell readers that Jared is a loyal man with a strong need to protect others. They’ll see it when he defends his housemate against a bigot, when he cradles his son in his arms, and when they learn that he once accepted disgrace and the loss of his job in order to protect a woman who had betrayed him.”

“When developing secondary characters, consider the movies,” says Kathleen Shoop, author of the historical drama The Last Letter. “Many actors will take a small role if the character is a scene-stealer. Your secondary characters should inspire the desire to play their part—they should be that good.”

What or who inspired your most memorable secondary character?

***

Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer: you’ve finished a few manuscripts, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work.

This book can help.

Read the book straight through, study the index to find help with your current problem, or dip in and out randomly — however you use this book, you’ll find fascinating insights and detailed tips to help you build a stronger plot and become a better writer.

***

Chris Eboch is the author of over 50 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting. See Chris’s books at Amazon, B&N/Nook or IndieBound

Learn more at https://chriseboch.com/ or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Website | GoodReads Author Page | Facebook

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2 Responses to “Making Minor Characters Fresh: #Writing Advice by Chris Eboch”

  1. Great advice! I became hooked on some authors in part because their secondary characters were so important in their stories. I think that really adds a lot to my enjoyment of a story.

    Of course, developing characters such as you describe SOUNDS easy, but it can be a little tricky. I’ve bookmarked this for future reference – I’ll take all the help I can get!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 21, 2017, 12:53 am
  2. Great article. I find these characters can flesh out a novel…and movies. My first thought when I saw the headline for this article was the Cohen brothers. Think “Mama” and the gas station owner, and trailer park owner from No Country for Old Men, or the two “motel” girls and Shep Proudfoot from Fargo.

    Posted by Mercy | October 21, 2017, 11:07 am

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