Posted in Writing tips

The Role of Secondary Characters and Their Importance to the Story

Part of my Prepping for NaNo Series

In most stories there is more than one character. Even in Tom Hank’s Cast Away, Wilson, the soccer ball became a secondary character in the story. He didn’t talk much but he was an important part of the story. In some stories the weather, as in The Perfect Storm or even an animal as in Jaws may be secondary characters or even the antagonist making it a main character. The shark in Jaws was definitely one of the antagonists in the story.

But what about Holmes and Watson? Watson is the narrating character and we often see and feel things filtered through his point of view, but he is still a lesser main character or secondary character. It is not his adventures but Sherlock’s. Yet without Watson to humanize the story and give the reader insight, we would not understand Holmes as quiet as well and if Holmes was narrating his own story it would be over much too soon because he would leave out a lot of the mundane parts that we need to understand the full picture.

Our secondary characters’ role is to support the MC (main character). Often, it is through their relationship with the secondary character that we truly see the MC. As with Holmes and Watson, he is brisk and unaffected by tender emotions and yet whenever he fears he will lose Watson, he tries to be or do better, at least that seems to be the more modern portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

In a series, many of these secondary characters may already be established. In my Leeward Files series, many of the secondary characters have been main characters in other stories or will have their own story at a later date. That is important to remember while writing a series, even if they are not on center stage, if they are mentioned in your story, they need to be true to their character/personality. Doing a character sheet for all of the important characters in your series could save you headaches later. Keeping your character sheets current, as in noting when they appear in other books, note changes. One thing Marie Force mentioned in the Romance Summit was to reread your work, especially if you are writing a series. Keep a file noting where your Characters are mentioned, when and where, cross reference. Marie does a spread sheet. I’m going to try that but I’m old fashioned, I like having it on paper in a notebook where I can reference it. Of course, I have four novels and she has thirty or forty, a big difference.

As you are filling out or planning your own character sheets, or whatever you call them, think about how the secondary character relates to the MC. How does he/she help the person achieve their goals or keep them from achieving their goals. Even a well-meaning friend can be an obstacle if their fears or prejudices cloud their judgement and your character allows it to influence them. Example: The best friend’s fear of failing gives him negative views of what might happen, so he expects the worse. He cautions his friend not to take risks, for fear he might fail. He might also be afraid he won’t and leave him behind.

This isn’t the secondary character’s story. He or she may have a stake in it, but this is the main character’s battle/journey. Be careful not to make it about the secondary character’s needs or wants. This is where it gets tricky, the MC can be influenced by the other character’s needs and wants, it can offer conflict even, but don’t let it take over the story.

In Charlotte’s Web, the story is about Wilbur the Pig but Charlotte the spider plays a huge role in how we see Wilbur. It is not her story. Even when Charlotte knows she is dying, she uses the last of her energy to help Wilbur and he in turn saves her babies. Charlotte is the only spider I’ve ever loved but that’s my story and not relevant here. She rallies all of the farm animals to Wilbur’s cause, helping him to survive. She is an important part of the story, but she isn’t the main character, it isn’t her story. The children, the farmer, everyone is secondary to Wilbur and yet it is through their love, friendship and determination that we see more than just a pig.

Hierarchy of characters:

Now this depends on genre and point of view.

A narrator could be a secondary character or the author, in most genre fiction such as romance, mystery and suspense, it is the point of view character who is also the main character. Since I write suspense with romantic elements and read romance, mystery and suspense thrillers, I’m going to use what I know.

Main Character (s): Point of view character, whose story is it, usually in genre fiction this is the person telling the story or living the story. Also, in genre fiction you may have more than one point of view character and two main story lines that converge. In my suspense thriller I have three story lines that will converge into one, more like twine around each other until they get tangled but that’s a different lesson.

Secondary and tertiary characters have degrees of importance.

For example:

Billy, my MC is a firefighter, his captain maybe an important secondary or tertiary character depending on what role he plays. He will be a named character so that makes him secondary. Some of the other firefighters and paramedics may be referred to as the new guy or the old man, the red head or the blonde. If they don’t have an important role and they are just a place holder or body doing a task, they don’t need a name.

Some of my secondary and even tertiary, characters have been in other books, they were MCs or secondary characters, even if they don’t play a big role in this book, because they were named prior, I may use their names here because they are recurring.

You don’t have to do a character sheet for every character or any, really, but it helps me write faster to do my most important characters. My main characters and their most influential cast members. I hope this helps. Good luck with NaNoWriMo and remember, you can use these methods anytime, you don’t have to wait for NaNo to get prepared.

Secondary Character(s)



Physical Description:


                Eye color:



                Skin tone:

                Physical fitness:

                Any physical flaws/weaknesses/disabilities:


Relationship with MC (Main Character):


Hobbies/passions (especially how they relate to the MC):

Hopes and fears (especially how they relate to the MC):

Personality traits: (How they are seen by the MC)




I write suspense with a hot romance and a southern accent. I like strong characters with attitude and charm. Heroines who can rescue themselves and heroes who aren't afraid to love them.