Craft Intriguing Secondary Characters in Exactly 7 Steps
A protagonist unsupported by secondary characters is just a purposeless blob of vaguely human traits.
Yeah, I said it. I said it, and I stand by it.
Our relationships are what make us real. The ones we love, fear, miss, resent, avoid, dreamed up in our imagination… these beings reveal who we truly are. It’s true for me, it’s true for you, and it’s true for your main character.
Other people (or elves or orcs or whatever) are everything.
That’s why it’s so important to learn how to develop secondary characters that feel as real as your protagonist.
Now, this is where the tricky part comes in.
Secondary characters exist to support your protagonist’s journey. This means they must have a specific role to play that serves the needs of a theme or your main character’s arc.
But, even though these side characters exist to serve a specific purpose in your book, you typically want them to read like fully realized human beings with their own goals, problems, fears, and flaws.
Think of it like showing up at a party because you know your crush is going to be there. You’re on a mission, but you’ll kill the vibe if you shine a light on the mission. The move is to act like this all just sort of fell into place.
“Oh, does the antagonist’s miserable upbringing starkly contrast the protagonist’s love-filled childhood? Does this suddenly feel very relevant when a devastating betrayal challenges the protagonist’s pacifist values? Huh. What a strange and magical coincidence.”
So how do you strike this balance?
I’ll show you.
You’re about to learn a step-by-step method for developing multi-dimensional secondary characters who serve an essential purpose.
But first, let’s throw down some definitions.
What Makes a Character Secondary?
Secondary characters fall under the heading of “supporting characters.” Real quick:
Supporting characters include every character who is not the protagonist (or protagonists, if you’ve got more than one). All supporting characters contribute to the story in some way, though that contribution doesn’t have to be big.
Secondary characters are the supporting characters who are secondary to your primary character (protagonist). Their contribution to the story will be big. Or maybe medium. But probably not small.
These side players show up in a lot of scenes. They might contribute to the conflict, assist the protagonist in some way, highlight a theme, or do some other important thing.
Most of the supporting characters you know and love are secondary characters, because those are the ones you know best. Gollum (The Lord of the Rings) is a side character. So is Haymitch (The Hunger Games), Piek Lin (Crazy Rich Asians), and Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables).
Tertiary characters aren’t relevant to this article, but I bring them up to help you understand what a secondary character is not.
A tertiary character shows up briefly and rarely. The reader doesn’t learn very much about them. And they typically only serve one function, like providing comic relief, delivering information, or creating a sense of place, like the sentient furniture in Beauty and the Beast.
As you’ve probably figured out, secondary characters fit into a middle place. They bring more to the show than tertiary characters do, but they’re still second to the main character.
So how do you create these essential supporting players?
Let's take this one step at a time.
1. Identify the Secondary Character’s Role in the Story
I mentioned that your secondary characters all support the protagonist’s journey.
To be clear, I mean “support” like a support beam. They contribute to the framework that holds the journey up, makes it work.
I don’t mean “support” like a cheerleader. Sure, you’ll have some characters who are on Team Protagonist. But you’re also going to need characters who force the hero/ine to grow by creating conflict.
Any secondary character you create should do one or more of these four things:
Illuminate a Theme
The Rosie Project is about a neurodivergent man, Don, who employs scientific reasoning to find his perfect partner. Don’s colleague Gene (a secondary character) is a married womanizer whose own passion-driven approach to romantic connection contrasts with Don’s logical one.
Through Gene, author Graeme Simsion expands the question of what it really means to connect with someone. The reader chuckles at Don’s overly-strategic survey for potential partners. But Gene’s more primal (and adulterous) approach challenges us to consider that reason and integrity have a role to play in true love.
The interesting thing about this type of secondary character is that they don’t have to engage directly with your protagonist’s storyline. They don’t even have to be someone your character knows.
That’s not true of these next two secondary character roles.
Support the Protagonist
Maybe they’re a loyal friend, a loving parent, a committed partner, or even a child who depends on your protagonist. As we know from real life, support comes from a lot of places. The important thing is that this type of secondary character exists to be a positive force in your protagonist’s life.
That’s not to say they can’t also create conflict for your main character. They may have to deliver tough love or call out hard truths. Or at some point, their needs might conflict with the protagonist’s needs.
But they still care about your protagonist.
Make the Protagonist’s Life Harder
You know this is a job for the primary antagonist. But don’t stop there. Who else can cause problems for your hero/ine?
This could include a secondary character whose only function is to be a living obstacle, like the personal assistant who always screws up the calendar.
But it could also be a typically supportive character who suddenly steps into a more antagonistic role. Such a twist could result from a falling out between characters or happen when the secondary character’s own journey is suddenly at odds with that of the main character.
In The Hunger Games, Peeta is just a stranger who was once kind to Katniss until they end up in the arena together. His very presence creates a massive complication for her. Not only does he pose a threat to her survival, but he’s also a rival she’d rather not kill, which makes her even more vulnerable.
Move the Plot Forward
Most—if not all—of your secondary characters will fulfill one of the three previous purposes. By doing that, they’re already moving the plot forward.
But if by some chance they do not, make sure they’re at least contributing to the narrative.
Once you know why your story needs this particular secondary character, let’s examine how they relate to the protagonist.
2. Define the Secondary Character’s Relationship to the Protagonist
As I mentioned previously, you can get away with writing a secondary character who has no direct relationship with the protagonist.
That said, most of your secondary characters will have some connection to the star of the show. And that relationship will likely land in one of these categories:
This could be a romantic partner, an assistant, a close friend, or a travel buddy who’s going to help the protagonist dispose of a ring. I’d even put a dependent character in this category, like Grogu in The Mandalorian.
A companion “joins” the protagonist on their journey in one way or another, whether it’s the best friend who continuously weighs in on the main character’s unfolding love life or the plucky sidekick who’s ready to help save the world.
This is the secondary character who isn’t necessarily trying to operate in opposition to your protagonist but is somehow always in the way.
Maybe it’s the person the love interest is crushing on instead of the protagonist. (Ouch.) Or it’s the anxious, high-maintenance nephew they forgot they promised to babysit.
An antagonistic secondary character is one who actively opposes the protagonist. We often think of stories as having one villainous antagonist, but there can be several.
Also worth noting: in the romance genre, the love interest is often considered the primary antagonist. After all, it’s usually their pursuit or refusal of the protagonist that’s creating all the angst.
This secondary character tends to observe and advise on the protagonist’s journey rather than participate in it. They might challenge your main character to confront their inner demons or help them see their hidden strengths.
Mentors also help the protagonist see the bigger picture.
This one’s a little different. The term “foil” doesn’t actually describe an interpersonal relationship. It describes a storytelling relationship.
A foil is simply a character who highlights a significant characteristic of the protagonist by providing contrast.
Remember Gene, the married philanderer from The Rosie Project? He serves as Don’s foil.
Because he and Don have such opposite approaches to romantic connection, the reader can’t help but constantly compare the two. Constant comparison leads to the understanding that, while Don’s approach might be offensively rigid at times, his goal is mutual respect and commitment.
Anyone can be a foil. A companion, an antagonist… even someone the protagonist never meets. You can also have more than one foil.
Once you know who a secondary character is (or is not) in relation to your main character, you’re ready for step three.
3. Decide if the Secondary Character is Dynamic or Static
Let me clarify your options a bit.
Dynamic Secondary Characters
A dynamic character evolves. They meet challenges, learn something, and change because of that journey.
The arc of a secondary character is rarely as involved as the protagonist’s arc. But it can still be deeply engaging.
A dynamic secondary character might even get their own subplot with scenes that don’t involve the protagonist. They don’t have to, though. A secondary character arc could be as simple as the gruff police chief coming to appreciate the annoying rookie.
Static Secondary Characters
If a secondary character doesn’t change, they’re static.
That doesn’t mean these characters are flat. Aunt March (Little Women), Yoda (Star Wars), and the best friend in most romcoms are all static characters. They have distinct personalities, perspectives, backstories, and desires. But they don’t evolve.
What Your Decision Means for Character Development
Usually, a dynamic character requires deeper development. You want to flesh out details like:
- Why do they approach life and their goals the way they do?
- Why do they need to change?
- What would motivate them to change?
If a dynamic secondary character has an entire subplot all to themselves, you’ll also need to set them up with:
- An inner conflict
- An outer conflict
- A relevant backstory
- A Lie and a Truth (More on this in a bit)
It’s similar to how you’d create a protagonist, but on a smaller scale.
4. Give Them a Distinct Personality
If there’s one thing you didn’t need me to tell you to do when creating secondary characters, it’s this.
But “personality” encompasses a lot of things, and sometimes it helps to have a checklist to make sure all your bases are covered.
As you flesh out your secondary characters, consider details like:
- Physical mannerisms
- Background (ethnic, economic, religious, etc.)
You can also tap into character archetypes to create interesting and complex characters. DabbleU just happens to have a guide for every single archetype. You can check them out at these links:
5. Create a Backstory and Inner Life
Now that you’ve nailed down your secondary character’s whole vibe, you can start digging into their very soul. How deep you dig depends on all those decisions you made at the beginning of this process.
If this character is a nosy coworker whose function in the story is to be funny and eventually reveal that the protagonist’s ex is dating their boss, you don’t need to do a ton of backstory work. Just do as much as you need to make them feel real.
What do they get out of being in everybody’s business all the time? Is there anything going on in their own life, or is other people’s gossip all they have? That sort of thing.
However, if you have a dynamic secondary character or even a static character who plays a prominent role in the story, you’ll need to go deeper.
Consider questions like:
- What’s their trauma? (Sounds dramatic, but the answer can inspire fascinating personality traits and an arc that resonates with readers.)
- Do they have any wonky beliefs about themselves or the world? (This is called a Lie and it’s a belief they adopted because of their trauma, like “You can’t trust anyone because everyone’s out for themselves.” Your character may or may not learn to release the Lie and embrace the Truth over the course of the story.)
- What deeper motivation is behind their goals?
- What’s at stake for them in this story?
- Are they wrestling with an inner conflict?
- What do they think they need? Is it different from what they actually need?
If you could use more guidance in this area, Destiny Salter has great tips on fleshing out your character’s inner life.
6. Fine-tune Their Voice
Voice is the final piece that turns these carefully constructed secondary characters into true-to-life beings.
When we talk about character voice, we’re not just talking about how they sound (though that’s important, too!). We’re talking about all the unique tools they use to communicate, including:
- Pacing and rhythm
- Diction (the words they use)
- Body language
Your character’s voice should be informed by who they are, where they come from, their perspectives, and how they want to be perceived.
Is this character a glass-half-full type who greets the world with a smile and sing-songy voice? Or do they speak in short, clipped sentences because they’re a very important person with very important places to be?
Maybe this is a child who has to find creative ways to explain their complex feelings using a limited vocabulary. Or a great aunt with a shocking secret who must choose her words carefully at a family event. Or a doctor with a Tennessee drawl.
Consider everything that makes this character who they are and ask yourself how those traits would influence the way they communicate.
(Just be sure to do your research to avoid stereotyping characters from backgrounds that are not your own.)
For a ton more tips to dial in your secondary characters’ voices, check out this article.
7. Develop Relationships Between Characters
Now that you know your secondary characters inside and out, you’re ready to plug them into your story. That means setting them up to engage with one another and with your protagonist.
Here are a few tips for building intriguing relationships for your side players.
Who gets in the way of your supporting character’s goals? Is it on purpose? Is your supporting character thwarting anyone else’s plans? If so, is that on purpose?
Is there anyone this character simply does not like? Anyone who represents everything they hate or reminds them of the worst in themselves?
If this particular supporting character contributes to your story’s central conflict, consider how they can make the conflict worse. How can their choices and actions:
- Put the protagonist in greater danger
- Heighten the potential risk or reward for the protagonist
- Expose the protagonist’s weaknesses
- Confront the protagonist with their deepest fears
- Poke relentlessly at the protagonist’s internal conflict
And don’t forget: your supporting characters can be sources of conflict purely by accident. Heaven knows I have been.
If this secondary character plays a supportive role in your protagonist’s journey, get clear on what that looks like.
What’s their style of support? Are they a nurturer? Cheerleader? Truth-teller?
Do they show their love through verbal encouragement? Acts of service? Blind devotion? Constant roasting because affection makes them feel too vulnerable?
How far would they go to protect the protagonist? Where do they draw the line? Does the protagonist appreciate them? Do they ever feel powerless to help the protagonist? What effect does that feeling have on their relationship?
Is there anyone else this character is supporting? What does that relationship look like?
You can also ask these questions about the secondary character’s support system. Who's looking out for them?
Also remember that sometimes well-intended support can be, well, disappointing. Or obnoxious. Or come off as mean. Does your secondary character’s show of support ever turn into a cause of conflict?
The way we communicate—and what we communicate—often changes depending on who we’re talking to.
You know what your character’s voice is. Now explore how they use that voice when they engage with different characters.
Does their diction change? Are they more formal in some situations and more casual in others? Do they code-switch? What about tone? Do they ever speak in a softer voice to seem less intimidating or a deeper voice to be taken more seriously?
What if they feel insecure in a relationship? Or what if they feel completely secure? Do they find themselves stuttering or stumbling with anyone? Who makes them so comfortable that their speech flows easily and their thruthiest truths come out?
Is there anyone they’re guarded with? When might they want to say less around someone—keep their sentences short and to the point? What does it look like when they keep a secret?
And what if they want to impress someone? What does that look like?
Don’t forget subtext! We human beings don’t always directly say what we mean. We talk around it or hint at it or even say the opposite.
What might this character say instead of “I love you,” or “You hurt me,” or “Everything you just said went over my head?”
Know Their Needs/Wants
In all our relationships, we’re looking to receive something from someone else. (And if it’s a healthy relationship, we’re looking to give something, too.)
It might be:
Or about a billion other things.
As humanfolk, we tend to look to others to satisfy some pretty deep needs. Sometimes this is lovely and good, like a child seeking comfort from a parent. Sometimes it’s ugly and upsetting, like some jerk conning a doting admirer out of their money.
Either way, what your characters need from one another will inform the way they interact. And—if you’re writing a secondary character who’s close to the protagonist—this detail could be essential to the plot.
What does your secondary character need from the protagonist? Anything? What do they need from other characters? And what are other characters hoping to receive from them?
How do their strengths and resources play into this? Is there anything they’re in a unique position to give? Do others perceive them to have powers or resources they don’t actually have?
Is there a balance of giving and receiving in their relationships? Do their relationship needs evolve as the story unfolds?
And do any of these needs create tension or heighten conflict? (Hopefully the answer is yes.)
That’s All Seven Steps. Now What?
First, take a deep breath.
I just dumped a lot of questions on you. From tiny details like hair color to the big stuff like whether a secondary character has the power to alter the course of your protagonist’s life, you’ve got a lot to figure out.
But you can totally handle this. And honestly, once you get going, you’ll find that building your cast of secondary characters is pretty fun.
Need a little more help?
Here’s a Big Pile of Resources for Developing Supporting Characters
DabbleU has a huge library of articles on character development. I linked a ton of them throughout this article. Here are a few others worth checking out:
- How to Create Characters Your Readers Will Simp For
- A Giant Pile of Character Ideas to Jumpstart Your Brain
- Character Development Questions That Aren’t About Eye Color
- How to Write a Good Antagonist: Full Recipe
- Flying Off the Page: How to Write Realistic Characters
- The Character Development Worksheet You’ve Been Looking For
- The Best Character Template Ever
And Dabble Story Notes are a great tool for staying organized as you create character profiles. Keep track of your research, create character interviews, search or upload character images, and more!
If you don’t already use Dabble, you can check it out for free for fourteen days. You don’t even have to enter a credit card. Just follow this link and start dreaming up those key supporting players.
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