Tertiary Characters: Giving Your Background Players Life
Do your main characters tend to steal the show in your novels? Don’t worry, that’s not a trick question. They should be doing that. In fact, you should be putting lots of thought and development into protagonists because that’s who the story is about.
But how much thought have you given to your tertiary characters? They can be important too.
If you want to breathe life into your stories, it's time to give tertiary characters a little love. These small but mighty players can add depth, complexity, and a fresh perspective to your plot. They give you the chance to offer comic relief, a dash of wisdom, and just some good old fashioned friendship.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- What tertiary characters are
- Why tertiary characters are important
- The different types and characteristics of tertiary characters
- How to develop them
- Notable examples from literature, film, and television
What are Tertiary Characters?
Tertiary characters play a minor role in the story. They’re not as significant as the main or even secondary characters, but they still serve a purpose in the narrative. These characters might only appear briefly or might make repeated appearances, but they can still add depth and richness to the world of the novel.
A tertiary character can be a shopkeeper who gives information to the main character or a passerby who witnesses an important event. These characters may not have a significant impact on the plot, but they add detail to the setting and help create a more realistic and immersive world.
And whether or not you mean to add them, they sort of just appear because your hero probably doesn’t live in a vacuum. (Unless you’re writing a very specific kind of story, I guess.) You need them to fill in the gaps even if they don’t really affect the main plot, though sometimes they can. And sometimes, they’re there just to offer a little slice of humor or levity to your story.
Why are Tertiary Characters Important?
Writers tend to focus on the main characters, their arcs, and the plot of the story, and of course they do. They’re the most important. But a few well-placed tertiary characters can help add richness and depth to your novel.
Tertiary characters can provide details and background information that can help the reader understand the setting and the context in which the story takes place. They can also help establish the social norms, cultural practices, and other details that shape your fictional world.
You can use them to provide contrast and conflict. By creating characters who are different from the main characters, you can add tension and complexity to the story. This has the added benefit of potentially making the main characters more interesting and multi-dimensional, as well as providing opportunities for growth and development.
Tertiary characters can also serve as a way to explore themes and ideas that are important to the story.
Types and Characteristics of Tertiary Characters
Now that we know what tertiary characters are for, let’s talk about some different types of tertiary characters.
Foils are characters who contrast with the main character, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses to allow your readers to gain a deeper understanding of the main character's personality and motivations. For example, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins serves as a foil to Elizabeth Bennet, highlighting her intelligence, wit, and independence against his boorish bumbling.
Mentors provide guidance, support, and wisdom to help the main character navigate their journey, dropping hints and tidbits of useful advice along the way. For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Tom Bombadil serves as a mentor to the hobbits, providing them with shelter, food, and advice.
If you’re not writing a romance, a love interest can also be a tertiary character, adding a romantic element to the story and helping develop the main character's personality and motivations. Love interests can also create conflict and tension as the main character may have to choose between their romantic interest and their other goals. For example, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Myrtle Wilson serves as a love interest for Tom Buchanan, adding tension by highlighting the class differences in society.
Tertiary characters can also be used to provide comic relief. These characters are often quirky, eccentric, or just plain funny, and serve to lighten the mood. Comic relief characters can also balance out the serious or dramatic elements of the story, giving your readers a break from the heavier events of the plot. An example is Olaf from Frozen. Despite not having a significant impact on the story, his playful personality and humorous antics offer a light-hearted respite from the movie's more serious moments.
Tertiary characters can also serve as antagonists when you give them opposing goals or motivations. While they may not be the primary antagonist, they still play an important role in the story's conflict. For example, in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the character of Bob Ewell serves as a tertiary antagonist, creating conflict by highlighting the racial tensions in society.
A supporting type of tertiary character offers companionship, advice, or assistance to the main character. Basically, this is the best friend or sidekick. These characters are often seen in a more passive role, but they can still have a significant impact on the story. An example of a supporting type of tertiary character is Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Sam is the loyal and devoted friend of Frodo with his unwavering support and advice.
Tips for Developing Tertiary Characters
So how do you develop great tertiary characters? There are a few things you can do, many of them that aren’t that different from developing your primary ones. You probably just won’t go into as much depth with these.
Give them a unique personality and voice: Even if a tertiary character only appears briefly in your story, it is important to give them a distinct personality and voice through their dialogue, actions, and behaviors.
Consider their backstory: It doesn’t need to be elaborate, but it can still be helpful to consider their history and motivations. This can help you to understand how they fit into the larger world of your story and why they behave the way they do.
Use them to reveal more about the main characters: Contrast their personalities with the main character or have them serve as a sounding board or foil.
Give them a clear role in the story: While tertiary characters may not have a significant role in the plot, they should still have a clear purpose in the story. Give them a specific job or function, such as a shopkeeper or bartender, so they become more than just background and add texture and complexity to the world you’re creating.
Examples of Notable Tertiary Characters
Let’s look at some examples of famous tertiary characters to help provide some inspiration.
- Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is a mentor type and provides guidance and advice that plays a significant role in the resolution of the story.
- Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is a foil type that contrasts with Jane and serves as a negative example of behavior.
- Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is a sidekick who offers support to Romeo, acting as his good friend.
- The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum is an antagonist who creates conflict and tension, serving as a major obstacle for Dorothy and her friends.
- Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a mentor type of tertiary character. He provides guidance and support to Scrooge and serves as a moral compass for the story.
- Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a comic relief type, adding a touch of the absurd and a bit of levity to the story that focuses on some pretty dark elements.
From Television and Film
- Yoda in Star Wars is a mentor type of tertiary character who provides guidance and training to Luke Skywalker.
- Gustavo Fring in Breaking Bad an antagonist who serves as a formidable adversary to the main characters.
- Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park is a foil and the sole voice of reason amidst the utter chaos of what is happening around them.
- Gollum in The Lord of the Rings serves as an antagonist, trying to get in Frodo’s way and steal the One Ring as Frodo tries to destroy it.
- J.A.R.V.I.S. in The Avengers is a supportive type of character who provides information and support to the team.
- Chewbacca in Star Wars is a supporting character who offers companionship to the main characters in the movie.
- Kevin McCallister's mom in Home Alone is a foil who contrasts with Kevin and provides a different perspective on the events unfolding in the story.
Can you list some of the tertiary characters in your story? How about some details about them? What is their backstory and what are their characteristics? As you’re figuring it out, you’ll want to write all those important details down. There’s no better place to do that inside the Notes feature of Dabble.
Not only can you track and organize everything, you can have them handy at the click of a mouse while you’re drafting and editing your book. Give it a try with a free 14 day trial today.
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