Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Motivations of Secondary Characters

Everyone intrinsically understands that the main characters have goals and motivations. But what about secondary character?

Ignore this being about fiction. Every person has some sort of goal or internal desire. Their lives might not be the stuff of Broadway musicals, but it is important to them and in his or her own way everyone has a complex existence. No matter how small a role a character in your story plays they must have some external driving force. Obviously you don't have time or care to delve into everyone that crops up in your pages, but, secondary characters who spend any amount of time interacting with the main character should have some goals and motivations both in line with and against your main character. We might not get to see all the complexities and nuances of their lives, but it should be at least alluded to that there is more behind the curtain. Show us that they have private dramas.

Motivations should not be stero-typical. The friend might be loyal, but, just like in real life, that loyalty isn't without bounds. A secondary character isn't just someone for the protagonist to talk to or the antagonist to plot with, a good secondary character will have driving reasons beyond just being helpful. However, you don't want the secondary character to overtake the story. Just like supporting actors can't upstage the star, a secondary character needs to be interesting without taking too much attention away from the protagonist.

A secondary character can be an agent of change for your protagonist. I don't know about you, but in some ways I interact a little differently with everyone I run across depending on who they are. For example, I act differently with my boss than I do with my Junior League friends, and I act differently with them than I would with my closest childhood friend. The same is true for your protagonist. In this way we are able to more intimately view the protagonist because we see how they interact with characters that are more complex. Everything rackets up a level.

The final thing that really interests me as a writer when working on secondary characters is the fact that no one is fully good nor fully evil and for the most part people want to do good or at least live up to their belief systems.

Secondary characters can be mentors, friends, friends of villains, neighbors, owners of a local store the protagonist frequents, family members or anyone really. Giving them lives of their own gives you plenty of fodder for sub-plots and themes as well as gives the protagonist a more robust life (by making those in his or her life more robust).

Some of my favorite secondary characters are:

  • Obi Wan Kenobi (Star Wars)
  • Sir Walter Elliot (Jane Austen’s Persuasion)
  • Alaris (Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart series--actually she has many great secondary characters)
  • Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series)
  • Soup Nazi (Seinfield)
Who are some of your favorite secondary characters?

9 tidbits:

Lynnette Labelle said...

Nice post. I'll have to go back through my ms and see what I've done with my secondary characters. I like what you said about how we show different sides to different people. So very true. So, you gave me something to think about. Sanks.

Lynnette Labelle

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts here. Hmm. Secondary characters. I like Hermione a lot too. How about Data in The Goonies?

I'll try to think of more and comment later :)

PJ Hoover said...

I do character worksheets for all my secondary characters too, trying to really think about the motivation. It can really help!

Love Obi Wan also!

Robyn Campbell said...

I like this post. I'll take a look at my secondary characters. I love what you said about, no matter how small a role in the story, they must have some external driving force. Great stuff, Lauren. Mine are, Ross in Big Red. And Ginger, in Black Beauty.

Barry said...

Elementary my dear Lauren, Dr. Watson clearly comes to mind. In Doyle's novels and short stories, as opposed to the movies, he had a very rich life, moving out of Holmes apartment into a very successful medical practice and marrying several times.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Secondary characters are sometimes my favorite characters in a story. Sometimes they're even stronger than the main characters. I did a contest on my blog awhile ago for secondary characters. I ended up putting the winner's secondary character in a scene in my novel. It was a lot of fun. That secondary character, amazingly enough, has turned out to be crucial to my plot!

Lauren said...

@Lynnette- Thanks for commenting and I am glad that the entry got you thinking :)

@writer- Oh! I love Data in the Goonies. He was really good.

@PJ- Character worksheets for the secondary characters is a great idea.

@Robyn- I haven't read Black Beauty in ages. I think I might go reread it this weekend :) Ginger was a great character.

@Barry- Dr Watson was a great character. I loved how he got more developed as the series went on. I think that it is too bad that popular culture seems to forget that part.

@Glamis- I think that when secondary characters are able to make huge movements in the plot it takes "character driven" to a whole new level and really gives a much richer context to everything going on. I think it's great you were able to pull from your secondary characters so fully. I only hope that I can do the same :)

stu said...

I've had a couple of secondary characters try to take over from time to time. That's fine, though it does give me the urge to do unpleasant things to them towards the end of the book.

Barrie said...

I love books with well-rounded secondary characters. Of course, I must mention Bess and George, Nancy Drew's best friends!!

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