Secondary Characters, Learn to Love Them

If you’ve never questioned my sanity, you might be after reading that title.  But I bet that I can say four names that will change your mind; Hermione Granger, Gandalf, Rue and Four/Tobias.  Secondary characters make the story.

If you’ve never really explored all the different ways to use secondary characters in your book, here are just a few things you can do with them.

  • Comic relief.  It’s obvious, maybe, but it’s really useful.  No matter how serious a story is, I expect to laugh at least once.  I mean really, what can’t benefit from a laugh?  Your main character might not be the right person for that sort of thing, though.  That’s why characters like Matt from Wheel of Time work so very well.  Rand’s got too much of a stick up his ass to me funny.
  • Crazy sub plots.  These are always fun.  You can do thing with subplots that you could never do with the main plot of a story.  People getting into crazy hijinks, racing horses, falling in love in such a way it doesn’t have to be complicated.  Whatever you’d like to do that seems to weird to put in the main part of a story, you can explore with a secondary character.
  • Extra conflict.  I honestly think I could do a whole series of posts about ways to add extra conflict with secondary characters.  I might do that at some point, but for now, let me just do a quick overview.  Extra conflict comes in many forms.  You can have a rival lover, a person who just doesn’t like your character, someone who wants the same job as your main character, someone who is teasing the main character’s kid.  It can also come in the form of a friend of your main character who’s running into their own trouble that your mc now has to help with.  Or at least is affected by.
  • If your books has different cultures, a secondary character is a perfect way to explore them.  Fantasy novels are a great example.  If your main character has never run into a person from some other country, they can ask all sort of questions, thereby giving you a great chance for exposition that feels natural.  The secondary character can ask the same questions of the mc.  And thus a whole bunch of information that your reader needs is there.
  • Your secondary characters are going to see the world differently that your mc.  At least, I hope so.  I mean, I assume your characters aren’t all cookie cutters or flat representations of people.  So, you should use them to show a different point of view than the one your mc represents.  There are very few times in real life that there’s a solid right or wrong answer to a situation.  Why should there be in your story?  You can use secondary characters to explore different viewpoints.
  • Your mc is a real person.  So it stands to reason that different people are going to see your character differently.  Their lover will see them one way, their parents another.  The guy who rings them up at the check out will see them a whole different way.  If you worry that your mc is too good, without some flaws that will round them out, a secondary character who doesn’t much care for her will do the trick nicely.  It’s also nice because rather than saying the character flaw is good or bad, it just puts the fact out there, and lets the reader develop his own opinion.  You’ll also show a lot about your character based on how she treats the people around her.  How does she treat her betters, equals and inferiors?
  • Finally, a secondary character can be useful to foreshadow events that are coming in an indirect way.  They’re the perfect tools for misdirection.  While your flashing your mc about, doing all that mc stuff, your secondary character can do all sorts of things undercover.  Or, the other way around.

Your secondary characters have to be there anyway.  Unless you’re doing some sort of strange proof of concept piece where you’ve only got one character who is in a room all by himself, there are going to be people around him.  Might as well use them to their full advantage.

Writing Prompt Saturday- List character traits

So, I’ve got a thing about lists.  I really like making them, and reading them.  List the 20 best movies in the last fifty years, worst songs from the 90’s (that would be a really long list) most offensive things said by church officials.  They’re fun.

Lists are also a great way to organize thoughts and ideas when writing.  I’m going to try to incorporate at least one list every month.  This is a big writers notebook building exercise, as well a a great brainstorming technique and at least some fun.

Here, then, is our first list.  We’ll do it to 100, because that should be enough to get beyond the normal and really make you think.  List 100 character or personality traits.

Now, I think you should do this on your own, but it’s also something we can do together.  How about it?  Add ten character traits in the comment section until we get to 100.  I’ll start us off, with the first ten.

Generous, vindictive, optimistic, musical, creative, traitorous, foul smelling, faithful, grating, and finally, dependable.  What else can you think of?

This week’s affiliate sponsor is Shutterfly.  I get any pictures I have printed from them, and have never had a bad experience.  Everything I get is well priced, good quality, and gets to my home fast.  Which is good, because I’m not the patient sort. 

Protagonist vs. Good Guy

Last week, we talked about what an antagonist doesn’t have to be. This week, we’re going to talk about the one thing your protagonist doesn’t have to be, a good guy.

Modern story telling has given us all sorts of examples of main characters who are not good people.

The bad guy with good intentions.

Example, Magnito. And yes he does count, because he’s the main character of his own comic recently. Magnito does really, really bad things. But it works for him, because he’s often the one doing the bad things that need to be done, allowing the heroes to keep their hands clean. This is a fascinating character, for any number of reasons, but the biggest one is that he’s deep. He’s also cathartic. It’s never going to be Scott Summers who decks the bigoted moron yelling racial obscenities. It’ll be Erik, or Logan, or even Emma Frost. We all hope to be the good example like Scott and Jean Grey, but we also know it wold feel better to be Erik and Emma.

The good guy with bad habits or dark past.

Then there are all the characters who are awesome now, but have a really dark past they’re trying to make up for. The sweet librarian who killed her husband. The wonderful doctor who used to work with the Nazis. My personal real life favorite example is Wernher von Braun. The man was a Nazis, which no one decent is ready to defend. Then he came here to America and helped found NASA, for crying out loud.

It doesn’t need to be just that. It can be a stand up guy who’s a little to quick to call his wife a dumb bitch, (like oh so very many of Steven King’s main characters.) It can be the iconic Iron Man, with the drinking problem. And the taking too many women to bed problem.

The bad guy with no good intentions at all, but who habitually does good things anyway.

Like House. He is not a good person, not even a little bit. He’s a drug addict who habitually uses the people around him for his own selfish needs. He must be tricked into saving people’s lives, because if someone’s just dying, it’s not interesting.

This is a great character because we want him to win, but not really. We want him to get better, but that would make it boring. We want, more than anything, to know what happens next.

The bad guy who is doing bad things, but we’re rooting for him anyway, for some reason.

This has been a popular character recently. Bad guys, just plain old bad guys, as the main character. Dexter, Ray Donovan, Breaking Bad. They are not trying to redeem themselves, they are not trying to make anything better, they are not good people. They are bad, just bad people.

But they are endearing because they are people. We care about Dexter when we see him trying to get along with his girlfriend. We want to see Ray connect with his kids. Because even though they are doing bad things for bad reasons, they are genuine people, and their stories are endearing.

Here’s the thing you’ve got to remember when you’re writing for grown ups. There is no need for morals. We are not writing to teach someone how to behave or be a stand up person. We are writing to tell a great story. And sometimes, the best characters are really, really bad people. That makes them the best protagonists

What your antagonist doesn’t have to be

If we are to talk about characters at all, of course we must talk about antagonists. It won’t be a very exciting story without them. Not much fun watching your mc achieve all of their goals without any sort of roadblock, after all. Your antagonist has to be at least as interesting as your mc, if not more so.

Eh, but there are a lot of blogs that will tell you how to make a great antagonist, tell you all the things they should be. Here at Paper Beats World, I want to go a step beyond that, and shatter some illusions you might have about what an antagonist has to be. It’s your book, after all, you can make it anything you want. Just for the record, your antagonist doesn’t have to be-

Stupid or for that matter, smart

Someone’s intillect has nothing to do with whether or not they will make a good antagonist. Brillient authors have done it both ways to great effect. Take, for example, Saruman from Lord of the Rings. Great antagonist, really scary, really smart. Then, we’ll consider Buffalo Bill from Hannibal. He’s a freaking moron, but he’s still a really effective antagonist.

At the head of some group of evil do’ers with a bunch of henchmen

An antagonist doesn’t need to have anyone on his side to feel like the world is against your main character. Just any anybody who’s ever seen a horror film. The antagonist in those is almost always alone, but he doesn’t ever seem to have a problem ripping all those college kids to shreds.


This is a big one. You’ll notice, through this article, I’ve not said bad guy once. That’s because your antagonist doesn’t have to be a bad guy anymore than your protagonist has to be a good guy. He or she can be someone just doing their job, or maybe even someone who thinks your protagonist is the real bad guy and needs to be stopped. Remember, we’re all the heroes in our own minds. The same is true for your antagonist.

An actual person

Of course, you could just not have it be a person at all. Who’s says it’s got to be? Some of the coolest stories I know didn’t have a bad guy to root against. Jaws, Animal Farm, Perfect Storm. The list is endless. Nature can be a great antagonist, and animals are always a quick choice for science fiction slasher flicks. Then, there is time itself, the antagonist in all of our lives. Illness is another great non human antagonist. Want to see what I mean? Watch Contagion. Actually, if you’re just wanting a good movie to watch, watch Contagion.

So, to sum it up, there are only two rules about what your antagonist must be. It must be capable, and it must stand in between your main character and the thing he or she wants.

Character Driven Stories

There are a thousand different kinds of stories, one for every star in the sky.  There’s fantasy, horror, science fiction, historical and all sorts of things that I haven’t the time to list and you haven’t the time to read.  But no matter the style, language, or theme, all stories fall into two broader categories; plot driven stories and character driven stories.  Given a choice between the two, I’ll always go for character over plot.

It can be hard to distinguish between the two at first.  Basically, though, a plot driven story is about something massive happening, like a plague or a riot, or an alian invasion.  This is a story that can be told from the pov of any number of people.  Like a riot, for example.  You can see that from the eyes of a riot officer, a pedestrian, an independent journalist who’s recording the action on her phone.  Each one will be a different story, but in each case the character is very reactionary.  Basically, this riot was going to happen whether your character was there or not.  A good example is Divergent. (Spoiler Alert!)  Even though the main character impacts the story, the whole mess was going to happen even if she’d never been born, let alone if she’d stayed in her original faction.  It just might have had a different ending.

In a character driven stories, though, it’s a different situation.  This is a story that just would not have happened without this character.  The story is about this character.  Think about Dexter, for instance.  The story is about a serial killer hunting serial killers.  Take away the main character, you take away the whole story.

How to build your very own character driven story

Step one- Make your main character.  When I started writing Woven, it sure didn’t start as a series.  It was all about one boy who liked to weave.  That’s it.  Take a person, and decide what makes him or her different from other people.  Devon liked to weave.  Alright, so he likes to weave.  What could possibly go wrong with that?  Well, maybe his weaving is magic!  That was honestly my first brainstorm for Woven.  Everything in the book stemmed from Devon and his sister Lenore, who was also given pov character status.  Without Devon and Lenore, there’s no story.

Step Two- Make your characters impactful.  Seems like a no brainer, but a character driven story needs characters that are, duh, driven.  This is not Shaun of The Dead, where the character just wants to sit back and play video games with his best friend.  Your character has to have something about them that goes against the grain, or a drive to make a difference in their world.  For better or worse, your character has to make the world ripple around her.

Step Three- Make your character fascinating.  I mean this character needs to really grab my attention.  I need to want to know more about him.  I’m thinking like Jonas from The Giver.  I want to know more about Jonas, right from the first.  I wanted to understand why he was so concerned with precision of language.

Remember, in a character driven story your character is in the spotlight.  He or she has to be the biggest selling point of the book.

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