Creative Writing Tip: Character Traits in Secondary Characters

1391967_baby_handsHi, everyone. I’m Victoria, and I’m a sidekick-aholic.

I got to thinking this afternoon about my favorite books and my favorite characters, to come up with an idea for a blog post, and I realized that a ridiculous number of my favorite characters are not the heroes but the sidekicks. Seriously. Maybe that’s odd, but I usually seem to prefer secondary characters.

  • I’ve always loved Hermione Granger  more than Harry Potter. She’s just as brave, and smarter than he is. “That girl needs to sort out her priorities,” as Ron says, like I feel I do. Also, she’s a nerd in the same way I am. But My favorite character in the Harry Potter books–and one of my favorites of all-time- is Remus Lupin. One of Harry’s Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers who doesn’t even appear in 3 of the 7 installments.
  • As much as I loved Jo in Little Women, Beth March was always my favorite of the sisters. Beth cares so much for others. And there’s something about her that is so introverted, like me. Exactly like me. I love her so much!
  •  Sam is way better than Frodo Baggins. Not that Frodo isn’t a great character; he is. But something about him having to bear the weight of the ring, and the effect the ring has on him, makes him somehow less human (less “hobbit”?) than Sam. Sam is so selfless in his devotion to his friend!
  • In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennett is just as much fun for me to read about and root for as Elisabeth is. She’s so kindhearted, and she’s got an innate wisdom that I really admire and wish I possessed.

So now I’m asking myself, why is this? Why do I love these secondary characters so much? What is it about them that’s so appealing, that I could imitate in my own fiction in characters who aren’t my heroes?

I think all of these characters, first of all, are very complex. Even if they aren’t protagonists, they’re always working on more than one level. Level one might be the support they afford the hero. But Hermione, for instance, also has all her insecurities about being muggleborn. Lupin struggles with a horrible sense that he’s worth nothing and is somehow less than human. Sam has never left home before and isn’t quite sure how to respond to what he sees. Jane loves Mr. Bingley but tries to hide her feelings for the good of her sister.

All for one, and one for all. (To a degree, of course.)

All for one, and one for all. (To a degree, of course.)

While these characters support their friends, the heroes, they still understand that they, as people, are important as well, and they have their own personal struggles to overcome. Beth’s shyness is a real battle for her. Sam is terrified to leave the Shire. While they’re extremely selfless–and that’s perhaps one of the traits I admire most in people, fictional or otherwise–they also focus on themselves to some degree, and their needs and desires, and that makes them believable.

I think all writers can learn something from how real and how deep these secondary characters are. Maybe I like them because, like some of them, I prefer not to be in the spotlight. Maybe that allows me to connect with them. I’m not really sure.

What do you think? Who are your favorite secondary characters, and why?


34 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: Character Traits in Secondary Characters

  1. Sam is definitely way better than Frodo..

  2. I am in love with Finnick Odair from the Hunger Games. I just think his story and personality are so cool, much more so than Katniss (although I’m quite fond of her as well). I actually wrote an entire fanfiction about his life (I was upset when I read Mockingjay, lol), so that should be some indication about how much I adore him 😀

    • Yea!!! that sounds like so much fun, Michelle! I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves her sidekicks!!! 🙂 I totally have to read The Hunger Games trilogy. I have to. I still haven’t, I’m ashamed to say. Life has just been too crazy lately, haha!

  3. Excellent article. Too many writers make their supporting characters shallow. It made me consider how I write mine. I tend towards group stories where there are 3-5 main characters in the novels.

    My latest one though, has a main character and a group of secondary characters. I found myself constantly going back to give them more depth and personality. I’m not entirely certain I did well enough. 😦 However, they did irritate me by their treatment of the main character a few times, which is always a good sign that their personality shows through, lol.

    I agree with you especially on Hermione. She’s really the main character in my opinion, even though it’s told from Harry’s viewpoint and he has the scar. She guides him and keeps everyone else going when things get dark. She solves most of the puzzles too.

    Harry just gets all the credit. 😛

    • hahaha, YES! I love what you say about Hermione!!! Agree completely! 🙂

      Also, I think you’re so right when you say if the way the secondary characters treat the MC irks you from time to time, it’s a sign they’ve come into their own and are truly their own characters, not just unnaturally always there to support the MC in anything and everything. Because that doesn’t happen in real life!

  4. Great post and so very true. I have a secondary character in my romantic drama series who started out as a supportive character and has pushed herself up to the front as the star. My readers love her for her outstanding personality.

    • oh my gosh, that’s amazing!!! It’s awesome how characters shout at you until you hear them and give them what they’re yelling for, isn’t it? I love it when things like that happen. I’ve been shocked to see in my reviews that a secondary character I have is a lot of people’s favorite character. I never expected that!

  5. In my first self published book released in paperback (in 2007, before Kindles really set the world of reading on fire) one of my secondary characters, an opium addicted female cowboy (cowgirl?), slumming it in Victorian London, completely stole the show from my main character. Without realising it,I had fallen in love with Denver McCade, and so had my readers. One reviewer on Amazon said she wanted to play Denver in the movie version!
    You’re right, so often the secondary characters can shine just as bright, or brighter than the main. And yet, somehow, if we push them into that main slot, they sometimes don’t quite work, do you agree?
    I mean, how popular do you think ‘Hermione Grainger and the Philosopher’s Stone’ would have been?
    Or Samwise Gamgee as the ring bearer?
    Hmmm… 😉

    • Oh my gosh, you’re so right! The whole reason Samwise works so well as the character he is, is because he’s NOT the ringbearer. Precisely for that reason. That’s a wonderful observation!!!

      Also, Denver sounds amazing!!!

  6. I always try to write my #2 character to be more interesting and complex than the main character. I think when you have less “screen time” you have to be more efficient at grabbing a reader’s interest. In fact, I secretly consider the sidekick to be the star of my books.

    • that’s a fantastic perspective. I had never thought of it way, but it’s interesting….my protag sorceress is fun but she isn’t my favorite character not even close. Now that you say it…. yep, someone else is the star. so cool!!! Thanks for your thoughts, Bill!

  7. Reblogged this on Time to Write and commented:
    Fun post about secondary characters.

  8. Kind of related, but I was just reading last night, “Will Write for Shoes: How to a Write Chick Lit Novel” and Cathy Yardley mentioned how people fell for Ari Shapiro on the show Entourage and its so true. Secondary characters can totally carry a book/movie sometimes. You read on just so you can discover their antics and quirks. You even sometimes fall for them before the main guy or gal 🙂 Thanks for this post!

  9. Pingback: Are You Overlooking Something..? | Mandyevebarnett's Blog

  10. There was a time when i would be recommended this website through the cousin. I’m not certain whether this particular post is published by way of him since nobody else identify such certain regarding my difficulty. You will be outstanding! Cheers

  11. Pingback: What Makes Readers Invest In a Frustrating Character? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  12. Pingback: The “Come, Cliche, Crackdown” Approach to Character Development | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  13. Good advice. I have a tip from my own experience: for cameo characters, think of one thing that defies the stereotype for that type of person. For instance, if it’s a doctor, make him unsympathetic. If she’s a waitress, make her ambitious. A teacher: slow thinker. An actor: introverted. You’ll find reasons why these people ended up in their professions despite the apparent conflict in their personalities. When you do, you’ll have acreated an instant character with depth who is interesting to read. Works for me!

  14. To take up the Harry Potter example, my favourite secondary character has to be Snape- he is such a complex character and carrying such a weight through all of the books; misunderstood, unappreciated and ultimately doomed. For me, Snape’s storyline adds a lot of depth to the novels.

    Great post!


  15. I agree that many supporting characters come off as more interesting than the leads. Maybe it’s because they’re less constrained than the leads. I know in my own writing, especially the Warder series, the story has grown into more of an ensemble cast rather than one with a definitive lead actor and his supporting crew that I initially envisioned. Perhaps it’s the supporting character effect rather than my ambling skills as a writer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  16. Reblogged this on Armenpog's Blog and commented:
    We all know that not all good ideas spring forth from our own minds. While I don’t do it often, sometimes I find a fellow author’s blog that resonates with me and I feel the need to share. I’m a bit late in discovering this gem about the likeability of supporting characters (Victoria Grefer posted it almost a year ago), but I think it’s better to share it late than to never share it at all.
    I’ve experienced similar feelings in many books I’ve read (e.g., I prefer Silk to Garion in the Belgariad) and even feel it in my own writing. The Warders began as a vehicle to explore Toran’s struggles with his mixed ancestry, but the strength (and my liking) of the supporting characters has turned it into more of an ensemble cast (rather like the TV show Friends). Perhaps it’s the supporting character effect rather than my ambling skills as a writer. That said, here’s Victoria’s original post. I hope you enjoy it, and as always, thanks for reading.

  17. Great piece! I find myself of a lover of side characters, too, even in my own novels! Perhaps it’s because we spend so much time in with the protagonists that the side characters become a breath of fresh air, a laugh, a cup of tea. For me, as a writer, I’ve often found myself loving the side characters to the point where I analyzed it and realized it was because I was the protagonist, making that side character my best friend or brother or someone in-between. It makes sense that I would love them.
    Again, fantastic piece.

  18. Loved this! A lot of my favourite secondary characters are from sort of obscure shows 😛


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