As authors, we all know that all characters are not created equal. To put it bluntly, there are levels to this shit and how you handle these characters can let your readers know which characters are important to the story and which will exit stage left without making an impact. But how do you determine the importance of a character?
Characters will typically fall into these three levels of importance:
These are the characters that you spend most of your time developing. You’re telling their story. The stakes are higher for them and they have the most to lose. Their desires and actions drive the plot.
Secondary characters serve as devices to challenge the main character or as key pivot points in the plot. They show up multiple times in the story. Their actions and desires may serve as plot twists but don’t play a role in shaping the overall plot.
This character is the in the background, the colorful tapestry that populates the world just beyond the peripheral view of the main and secondary characters.
How to use each character in the hierarchy.
It’s important to remember that there are levels of importance to the characters in your story because each of them have different roles. We don’t need to know their deepest inner conflict just because they made it to the page, but the reader will certainly remember the chain-smoking neighbor who routinely drops bits of wisdom on your main character while they share a cigarette on the front stoop. Here are a few ways that you can use each of these three characters effectively:
Unless you’re writing a book about an agoraphobic character who never leaves her home, your character will live in a world populated by people who aren’t involved in their everyday lives. In a previous post I talked about stories about place. Tertiary characters and your setting help to shape these stories and make them more impactful.
Make them part of the scenery.
These characters don’t necessarily need “speaking lines,” but they can and should interact with your character in some simple way. They can be the barista who hands out encouraging affirmations with a cup of coffee or the Uber driver that tells a colorful story on the way to the airport. But be careful with how you handle these “walk-on” characters to make sure they don’t spend too much time on the page.
Here’s an example to illustrate how to use tertiary characters in your story.
Down on our shared stoop, my elderly neighbor Mrs. McKinney sat perched on the second step, working on what looked like her second cigarette. I sighed wearily and sat down next to her.
“Morning, Mrs. Mac.”
“Mornin’, little girl.”
She knew that I was twenty-five years old, but anyone younger than Mrs. McKinney must seem like an infant. The woman had to be at least seventy. She may have been pretty once, but now she was so heavily wrinkled that she resembled hand-wrung washing. She had a long salt and pepper grey braid that hung down to her waist, blue eyes slightly clouded with cataracts, and a crabby attitude that scared the neighborhood kids. There was a Mr. McKinney, but he died a couple of years ago. Mrs. McKinney hasn’t been the same since. She seemed a bit sadder—a bit slower. Her kids tried to make her move to a nursing home, but she put up such a fuss, they decided it was better to just to leave her alone. They came by from time to time to check on her—take her to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, and such—but mostly it was just Mrs. McKinney and like ten cats. She kind of smelled like stale cigarettes and dirty kitty litter, but who was I to judge? Especially since Maniac was one of the feral kittens she fed who had run into my apartment the day I moved in and never left.
“Can I bum a cigarette off you?”
Mrs. McKinney looked at me with her rheumy, blue eyes and tapped out a cigarette. “If you have a habit, you should be able to support it.”
I took it and pinched it between my lips. “I know, I know, but I thought I would try to quit.”
“Didn’t stick, huh?” She passed me a tattered book of matches.
I grunted, struck the match, and lit the long, thin cigarette. Mrs. McKinney smoked Virginia Slims. They tasted like shit, but they would do in a pinch.
Later on in the novel, Mrs. Mckinney and Yves share another cigarette on the stoop and have a conversation that bookends this one. She’s important, but we don’t need to know much more about her other than her interaction with the main character. This scene, among others, paints the world of Yves Santiago.
Tertiary characters are also a good place to illustrate diversity in the world that you’ve written.
There has been a lot of conversation over the years about diversity and how mainstream fiction is overwhelmingly white. Unfortunately, that message has been distorted and I will probably write a post about it someday, but I wanted to highlight this as one way that authors can tell a diverse story without stepping into #ownvoices territory.
Having that said, when you’re crafting this character, make sure you are not playing into negative stereotypes. Some authors will say the exact opposite and they encourage sticking to stereotypes when you’re crafting tertiary characters, but honestly, I feel like that is boring and lazy writing. There are plenty of negative stereotypes in literature and film. There is absolutely no reason why you need to add to that catalog by making all of your bad guys black, or every Spanish speaking foreigner a day laborer. DELIBERATELY BREAK THE STEREOTYPE!
No author is expected to include every marginalized person in every story, but making the “scenery” of your book colorful and diverse is a good place to start. Make your small town less white and affluent. Paint a real picture of the world around you.
At this level, your character will get some development if only to establish how they relate to the main character and what purpose they serve in the plot. The reader should notice this character and anticipate that something pivotal or important is supposed to happen when they appear on the page. They still shouldn’t be scene stealers but the scenes that feature them should be memorable.
How do you make the secondary characters memorable?
Make them eccentric, or odd.
When I think of eccentric secondary characters, the first that comes to mind is Mrs. Havisham from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. A chain-smoking lady, trapped in a bygone era who lives in a mansion that is falling down around her tends to stick in your mind, dunnit? We don’t know much about Mrs. Havisham. We don’t ever really find out why or how she came to be this way, but she plays a very important role in how Finn and Estella relate to each other.
This is eccentricity at it’s finest.
Exaggerate their seemingly normal human traits.
In Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Series, he paints Dexter Morgan as a khaki-wearing, achingly normal blood splatter analyst who’s flat affect and dry humor hide a sadistic, sociopathic, serial killer. He does this so effectively that the reader is compelled to root for him to escape the punishment he deserves for the crimes he has committed.
Or maybe that was just me.
In each book, Dexter struggles with trying to appear more normal while still appeasing his dark rider.
I realize that Dexter is the main character in this series, but you can apply these same attributes to a secondary character to make them more interesting.
Give them an obsession.
There are definitely levels to an obsessive character with the most obsessive being the one you want to stay away from—unless that is part of your plot. For the most part, you want them to be less Joe from You written by Caroline Kepnes and more Elijah from my trilogy The Lust Diaries who cyber stalks Yves with nothing but the best intentions.
The difference between secondary and main characters is how often they appear on the page—and no there is no set number of scenes or chapters. However, be careful when and how you introduce them because if they are super impactful, your reader may spend the rest of the book wondering about the sleepy Jamaican artist your character had to deploy her ninja skills to escape instead of focusing on her true love interest.
This character is usually the reason why you started writing your book in the first place. As previously stated, the stakes are highest for them. They have the most to lose and their actions and desires drive the story.
Your main characters require the deepest characterization and would benefit from a run through The Basic Character Creation Workbook. Their backstory, central problem, goals and motivations will drive the plot.
Once you have all of that done there are a few ways to signal to the reader that this is the character that they should care about.
Their choices make changes.
Your main characters choices should be informed by their central problem—the damaging belief or inner conflict that they have to overcome or face to achieve their goal. Make those choices important enough to have a real effect on the story.
Make them the focus.
This particular way of writing the main character is effective if your story is told from alternating points of view, while the main character never really appears on the page. Everyone sees them, listens to them speak, and talks about them behind their back which elevates their importance. In fact, their absence becomes the big event at the center of the story and makes this off-screen character the vehicle for the plot.
Tell the story from their point of view.
This, more than any other device, is the most potent way to elevate the importance of your character. Telling the story from their point of view allows the readers to sympathize and empathize with characters that resemble themselves, a loved one, or even an enemy.
If you establish character hierarchy early on, it makes storytelling much easier. Knowing the roles each character will play will give your story balance and continuity.
Have you read a truly memorable character lately? Tell me about it in the comments!