Monday, July 4, 2011

Secondary Characters: Adding Substance to Your Storytelling

Coming from a background in journalism, particularly broadcast journalism, boiling my writing down to basics is second nature. So when I first contemplated the idea of writing a full-length novel, it was a little daunting. How could I possibly write something so long that focused on two characters? Okay, you’re probably asking yourself why I would focus only on two characters. Well…when I looked at submission guidelines for various publishers, the line “secondary characters should be kept to a minimum” or something similar kept popping up. Now for someone who’s kind of a minimalist to begin with, my brain said: hero and heroine on a desert island. No other humans. Okay…ready, set, write. Wrong.

Life isn’t like that. And even in the fictitious world of romance, we need secondary characters because they serve some very important purposes. First and foremost, they help show us more about our main characters. One of the ways in which a writer uses indirect characterization is to reveal a character through what others say about that character and by how the hero and heroine interact with each other and the secondary characters. Does that mean you need a cast of thousands? No, but I think as writers, we also need to give more credit to our readers and what they can and can’t keep straight.

The second way in which secondary characters become useful is in providing additional conflict through subplots. In writing a short story, writers should keep storylines on an extremely narrow focus—few characters, no subplots—but a novel needs more. If as writers, we don’t include subplots, it’s like slapping the burgers and dogs from the 4th of July cookout on the table with no buns, no condiments, and no side dishes. Personally, I like my diet a little varied.

Finally, those secondary characters that pop into stories can end up demanding a story of their own. In the case of Winning Heart, the contemporary romance I have releasing today from Lyrical Press, two of those secondary characters evolved into a secondary romance within the frame of the same novel. (For you bargain seekers—woo hoo! Winning Heart turns into a two for one deal.) Another secondary character ended up getting his own story, Bittersweet, which will come out in December.
So, don’t kiss off those secondary characters. There are a few of them worth taking the time to develop, so when you serve up your writing for readers to consumer, they not only get the entrĂ©e, they also get a full course meal.

I invite you to leave a comment, but more importantly, check out the link to Winning Heart today because all this week, it’s 30% off. That’s an incredible deal for a full-length read!


  1. I agree. I love secondary characters. Often they can add a bit of comic relief (a cranky housekeeper, perhaps) or a touch of sweetness (an adorable child). I like to interject an ex-love interest. One that won't go away and adds a bit of vinegar to the mix. Great blog. Much success to you.

  2. Secondary characters add flavor and interest to the story, and you can do with them what you can't do with the main characters.

  3. I would agree, too. Secondary characters are necessary for me as a reader. They add depth to the h/h and sometimes humor and the voice of reason.

    Great post.