Author Ellen Jackson

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Secondary Characters

FASHIONING SECONDARY CHARACTERS

Secondary characters come in two varieties:

Background or incidental characters who are hardly noticeable. They’re shadowy people who walk on stage, then walk off. If your book is ever made into a movie, they’ll be played by extras.

Minor or secondary characters who know the main character, react to him, and comment on his behavior. These characters are more important than incidental characters and are developed more fully.

Sketching background characters

Background, or incidental, characters include neighbors, acquaintances, classmates, waitresses, clerks, and other service personnel who play a walk-on role in your story. You want to develop these characters in accordance with their roles. You may want to give some of them a quirk or two, especially if the quirk becomes important to the story. Perhaps the librarian at David’s school has a tattoo of a dragon on his hand. Later David discovers that members of a strange new cult have the same tattoo. Erin’s next-door neighbor likes to yak on the phone while she drives. Later the neighbor loses control of her car and plunges over an embankment.

It can be a mistake to devote too many words or lines to a background character. While you can lavish a few telling details on some of these folks, you mustn’t let them overshadow the main action. The general rule is to give background characters space in direct proportion to their importance in your story.

Identifying minor (or supporting) characters

Your minor or supporting characters are your main character’s friends, her enemies (if she has some), her parents, siblings, extended family, and possibly her teacher. A supporting character, especially the main character’s best friend, often provides some contrast to the main character. Sometimes this contrast is physical–one character is light and one is dark, one chubby and one thin, one tall and one short. Or their personalities may be contrasted. If the main character is adventurous and outgoing, her best friend may be a shy introvert. If the secondary character comes from an unstable family, the main character’s family may be warm, relaxed, and loving. Whatever the case, you won’t tell your reader about your characters, you show them. For example, you may show Robin wondering why she’s never met Alicia’s family–or even been inside her best friend’s home. Gradually she becomes aware that Alicia’s parents frequently smell of booze or that Alicia can’t afford decent clothes.

You may want to write a character profile description on each of the more important secondary characters. Think about what each of these characters wants and needs. These characters have a stake in your unfolding story just as the main character does. See if you can discover what it is.

Secondary characters need a few more distinguishing features than incidental characters. They can be comic and eccentric, scatterbrained or obsessive–but whatever traits your give them, they must never be more compelling than your main character.

Adding a touch of eccentricity

When you write a book, you’re inviting your readers to spend hours with your characters. Most children don’t want to spend those hours with plain, ordinary people--the ones they see every day at the park, at school, at the mall. They want to meet characters–characters in the sense of different, special, interesting people.


When thinking about your secondary characters, think quirky. Think of all the strange things you’ve seen your friends and relatives do, and even (let’s be honest) done yourself. Without censoring or judging, make a list of all the quirks, pranks, and oddities you can think of. Have fun with it. When you come across someone doing something unusual, make a note. You may even want to keep a journal for this purpose.

I once saw a dignified, well-dressed woman take a lollipop out of her purse, slowly unwrap it, and share it with her small dog. First she would have a lick, then the dog would have a lick. A college professor I knew always started a lecture with his eyeballs rolled up and only the whites of his eyes showing. Both these quirks were recorded in my journal. But don’t saddle your character with unexplained eccentric behavior. Anything too blatant needs to be meaningful within the context of the story. Decide whether you want your readers to like your character or not. If you want him to be likable, don’t cross the line from quirky to jerky.

To find out where that line is, experiment with quirkiness in your own life. Send a valentine on Christmas, or sing your responses to the next telephone solicitor. Be a little bizarre now and then and find out how it feels. Once you’ve made contact with your inner eccentric, add some spice to your secondary characters by giving them a few unusual traits. You’ll be glad you did.

Creating comic characters

One of the best ways to make a character appealing is to make her comical. You can create a comical character in one of four ways:


1. Your character can be funny because of what she says.

"A law is like a rule only meaner," said Frannie.

2. Your character can be funny because of what she does.

Mrs. Mouse went to the cupboard and came back carrying an umbrella, a pair of galoshes, suntan oil, a parachute, and a life preserver.

3. Your character’s situation can be funny.

In the Big City Samantha set about looking for employment. Jobs for alligators were scarce, but she soon found work testing toothbrushes.


4. Humorous language can be used to describe the character.

He played on the beach until even his teeth were sunburned.

Children love exaggeration and word play. If you are trying to create a comic character, look for humorous possibilities in the dialogue, the description of the character and his situation, and other people’s reaction to him. Exaggerate his foibles and follies and use amusing comparisons and word play to describe him. You can also add humor by using comic details:

Not this: "Mr. Green got a new job."

But this: "Mr. Frizzlebean went to work for a company named Fancy Fruits. His job was to check the prunes for pits."