Straying from the obvious: Secondary characters

spider elysiumYou may be able to guess from my last post about Elysium’s Spider that I have a thing about secondary characters.  I always have, I imagine I always will.

A secondary character is an important character that is not the hero/heroine or villain.  It is not their story, but they are involved one way or another.  My argument in my last post was that Spider was essentially a major hero of Elysium, but as it’s not his story he is not the main character.

Secondary characters are important.  They help to add depth to the main characters, they can add comic relief, or offer a break from an emotional drama.  They also allow for subplots to weave in and out of the main plot.

I have found that in the majority of stories, I find myself becoming more attached to a secondary character than the protagonist.  I find myself watching them instead of our hero/heroine, trying to figure them out.

In the novel I have just finished, I started off with two protagonists.  The story was weak, so I created two secondary characters to work a subplot and add some depth.  As I wrote them into the story, they grew and slowly began to take over.  They were so much more interesting than the original characters and their existence allowed the two original characters to grow and develop.  Soon I had a novel with four protagonists.  I have started writing the synopsis and query for this novel and after five years of telling people that it’s about an infamous dragonslayer, I have come to realise that it is now about a castle maid.  A character only introduced to the novel half way through writing it.

Some examples of my favourite secondary characters are:


  • Benvolio, Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.  When I first read the play, I became utterly hooked on Tybalt.  I was then exposed to the amazing Baz Lurhmann film and found myself fascinated with Benvolio and Mercutio.  The fighting, the name calling and the rivalry is all much more interesting to me than a young man and woman falling in love.  I now always stop reading/watching after the demise of Tybalt.Montague
  • I recently discovered the Peter Grant novels by Ben Aaronovitch and from book one (Rivers of London) became far more interested in Thomas Nightingale, Peter’s boss, than in Peter himself.  While I love reading the books, I constantly find myself wishing there were more scenes with Nightingale.  As supposedly the last wizard and a man who has lived through two world wars, he is naturally more interesting than a young, charismatic policeman who has only just discovered that magic exists.
  • In some works of fiction, it is difficult to find the secondary character.  When a story has such a large cast, such as Game of Thrones or The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, a favourite character may not be considered by all to be a secondary character.  Tyrion, Daenerys and Arya are all main characters but what about Merry and Pippin?  Or the entire cast of twelve dwarves in the Hobbit?stand by me
  • Sometimes my love for a character can be justified.  I was twelve when I first saw Stand By Me and not ashamed to say that I honestly fell in love with River Pheonix’s Chris Chambers.  That character and film got me through a lot.  But Stand By Me’s protagonist is really Gordie Lachance (Will Wheaton).  When I was eighteen I read the novella which the film is based on, The Body by Stephen King.  Lo and behold, the narrator is indeed Gordie but the story is actually about Chris Chambers, giving so much more insight into the character.  That book is now one of my most prized possessions.

So it isn’t that I have an actual aversion to the hero.  I love Buffy, I truly care about Sam and Dean Winchester, I will happily read a book about nothing but Commander Vimes and I’m desperate for the return of Logan Ninefingers (I haven’t read Red Country yet but have my suspicions so shush).  It isn’t always that the hero in certain stories is poorly done, I actually love Max in Elysium, I just feel that Spider is the stronger, more interesting character.

BuffyI do love a good villain, but that’s really for another blog post.  However, maybe this love for secondary characters is actually an aversion to the ‘hero’ or the ‘good’.  Spider is a criminal underground leader, Tybalt is violent and bitter, Chris is from a very bad family and Nightingale has seen and done things that no ‘forty-something’ should have.  None of them are clear cut good whereas Max, despite his criminal record, Gordie, Peter Grant and the love between Romeo and Juilet are so squeaky clean it’s boring.

Which leads me to wonder whether it’s all too easy to have a one dimensional protagonist.  All characters need to have something a little special about them, something that hooks the reader or that the reader can relate too.  The protagonist especially, as we spend so much time with them, should have something that makes them interesting, endearing and slightly unpredictable enough to make the viewer/reader want more.

This is what these secondary characters do for me.  They are the untold story, which, as a writer, is probably another reason I am so attracted to them.  They do what the hero or villain cannot, they are the reason our hero does certain things, and, more importantly, they are always fun.


3 responses to “Straying from the obvious: Secondary characters

  1. Pingback: You’ve gotta love a good villain | J E Nice·

  2. Pingback: The anti-hero and lack of anti-heroine | J E Nice·

  3. Pingback: My top three films of 2013 | J E Nice·

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