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January 27, 2012 / Chersti Nieveen

5 Tips to Add Depth to Secondary Characters

I was talking to my sister the other day, and since we always have random conversations, I asked her a question. Now this question came from a book full of (dumb) questions.

My sister answered (see end of post), but what really struck me was: How would my secondary character respond?And I was surprised by the answer. Because this girl has a heart of gold and goes out of her way to help everyone — but this is how she would answer.

1. If by sacrificing your life you could contribute so much to the world that you would be honored in all nations and never forgotten, would you be willing to do so? It depends on what the the situation is. The fame or honor isn’t important. My dad showed me that. But you should be willing to do for something you believe in, or something you value.

2. If so, would you make the same sacrifice knowing that someone you thoroughly disliked would receive the honor while you went unrecognized. No. (SURPRISE TO ME!) I would make the sacrifice no matter the end result, but I STRONGLY believe that people are held accountable for what they do. There is a universal justice that will come to everyone. So even if the fame went to another person, then it doesn’t just end there.

Now I’d thought she was the type that didn’t want to see anyone suffer. The type who wouldn’t mind someone who is her enemy (obviously the ANTAGONIST) is credited for a good deed… but I was wrong. She’s the type who doesn’t want to see someone suffer more than they deserve.

So here’s five tips to enhance your secondary characters

1. Ask them the right kind of questions. Ask the questions beyond hair color, beliefs, and preferences. Ask them situational questions, ask them their thoughts on a certain event in the novel they don’t know about, ask them random questions about their past.

2. Break beyond the stereotypes. When you think of a stereotype, what is the opposite? I’m doing this in one of my drafts right now. The protagonist is a trained warrior (think Bourne Identity), but she’s very fashion conscious. So much so, that sometimes her vanity outweighs the right thing to do in a situation (read: she wears high heals even though she can’t fight in them as well). Emma Watson’s quote above is great: she’s a movie star, but breaks beyond the stereotype of low-cut dresses and string bikinis, saying the above quote in an impressive interview.

3. Give them exceptions. Everyone has exceptions to their own rule. With my character and her focus on justice, she takes the punishment to cover for her sister. So when two of their values clash (seeking justice vs. family loyalty), they have to choose which is more important to them. This defines them as a character.

4. Give them a secret. Everyone has a secret. Everyone. Whether this is a secret crush on your best friend’s boyfriend (and you told her!), a hidden obsession with toes, or the time you tripped over an acorn back in high school, we all have one. (NOT TELLING MINE!) So give each secondary character a secret, whether it comes out in the story or not. I did this in my manuscript, and it added such a level of depth to each character.

5. Give them pet phrases. Everyone has a word or phrase that just rolls off their tongue. Whether the person is from another nationality (with all those colloquial phrases), or she’s a  typical blonde who uses “like” way too much, there is a phrase for everyone (warning: try to break beyond the stereotypes here, too). One of my characters in a previous manuscript used the “May or may not” phrase all the time, especially when flirting or teasing. “Yeah, I may or may not be running to the store in an hour.” “I may or may not have lost your cars keys.” “I may or may not have eaten all the chocolate chips.” Using these phrases throughout the book (without overdoing it) gives each characters a voice.

So what problems do you face when writing secondary characters? Any secondary characters out there that you adore more than the protagonist?

* * *

So how did my sister answer the questions: 1. No way! 2. Are you kidding? If he’s my enemy, then obviously he doesn’t deserve that. 3. (added question: What if you did something embarrassing or horrible and your enemy will go down in history as having done it). NO! If he’s my enemy, then he’s bad enough that he’ll do that all on his own.

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5 Comments

  1. Jonene Ficklin / Jan 27 2012 8:53 am

    Chersti, this is very helpful! I love the catch-phrase idea (boy, do I do that, and I know each of my friends’ catch-phrases – and sometimes catch myself saying them) and the secret idea. Thanks for a great post. I’m going to incorporate it into my current WIP right away.

  2. Rahma Krambo / Jan 28 2012 1:50 pm

    Thanks for these suggestions. I hadn’t seen some of these before, like giving your characters exceptions to their own rules. I love interviewing my characters though and will be including some of these ideas.
    Thanks.

  3. Amie Kaufman / Jan 28 2012 5:43 pm

    This is fantastic — really thought provoking, and like Rahma, I hadn’t seen some of these before. I think #3 is what’ll really tell you you’ve got depth in a secondary character.

  4. Leisha Maw / Jan 30 2012 8:04 am

    Great post, Chersti! I love the secret idea. 🙂

  5. Chersti Nieveen / Feb 29 2012 10:03 am

    Rahma: Interviewing characters can be such fun! And the things that come out are so surprising, which maybe makes me sound a little crazy since it’s all in my head anyways, but you know how it goes!

    Amie: Thank you so much! I think #3 is a powerful tool you can use 🙂

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