Friday, September 21, 2018

SECONDARY CHARACTERS: The Good, The Bad & The Quirky

Hi everyone, Winnie Griggs here. Today I want to discuss Secondary Characters.

What would your favorite story be without its secondary characters? You know, those unforgettable personalities that spotlight the story's focal characters, either by helping them shine or presenting daunting obstacles to their goals, or in some cases, creating a quirky contrast for what's happening in the main plot.

What I’d like to do today is draw examples from an oldie-but-goodie movie to illustrate how secondary characters can be used to best effect – the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, Curse of the Black Pearl.  It’s a fun movie with lots of great characters to draw on for illustrative purposes.  Hopefully, most of you have seen it.

Primary Characters, of course, are your protagonsits, those characters who carry the most weight in your story and are its focus.
The rest of your cast by definition are your secondary characters.  They can be broken down into three categories:
  • Key Secondary Characters: those characters who stand beside or against your Primary Characters, who highlight their flaws and virtues, and who provide the reader with an additional perspective as these Primary Characters struggle to meet their story goal.  They are important but their importance stems entirely from their relation to the Primary Characters and to the story journey.
  • Tertiary Characters:  your minor characters and bit players who carry much less story weight than your primary or secondary characters.  They are usually defined primarily by their context.
  • Window Dressing:  Characters who, like furniture, foliage and landscape, are there only to help paint a scene.

So, let’s identify who our primary characters are in POC.    Because by definition all of the other characters are Secondary.
Some of you may argue that Captain Jack Sparrow is the protagonist.  After all, he’s definitely a very strong presence and one of the more memorable characters from the movie.  And he does have a compelling story goal and lots of on-screen time. 

However, if we think of POC in terms of character and plot arc, we see that this is really Will and Elizabeth’s story.  It is they who grow and change over the course of the movie, and it is their determination to save each other that really drives the story forward.  Jack, for all of his dash and swagger, is very much the same man at the end of the story as he is at the beginning.  And that delegates him to the role of secondary character, albeit a very key one.

In fact the screen writers very carefully set this up.  The movie opens with the dramatic first meeting between Elizabeth and Will as children.  Then it follows with a scene showing them as adults.  This second scene gives us a clear picture of the unspoken attraction crackling between them and the impossible gulf that separates them, namely their very different stations in life.  It is only after this is strongly driven home and is clearly fixed in the audience’s mind that we are introduced to the flamboyant Jack. 

Regardless of all the other characters’ goals – Jack’s desire to reclaim the Black Pearl, the pirates’ desire to lift the curse, Elizabeth’s father’s desire to see her suitably wed - it is the love story between Will and Elizabeth, and their growth into characters strong enough to step across the gulf of their differences in ways they could not in the beginning, that is our primary story thread.

That brings us to the first point I want to make.  Readers are like baby birds in that they tend to imprint on the first thing that comes along.  Make certain you allow your readers to get a strong feel for your protagonists and their goals early on so they don’t get confused about whose story this is.

So, on to our discussion of Secondary Characters.  We’ll start with the least rounded of these,


These are the nameless throngs that populate our character’s world but are almost invisible except as props.  They are what the film world calls ‘extras’.  Because your characters are not walking around in an empty world, you must people it with the multitude of everyday folk who make their world believable and give it context.

These are crowds on the street or at a sporting event, the waiter or the bell hop, the soldiers in battle or the children on a playground.  These characters are simply there, as I mentioned,  to add verisimilitude and context to your character’s world. 

They are backdrops, characters passing through and never pausing to interact in any but the most superficial way with the protagonists.  These characters have few if any lines and, if referred to at all, are normally referred to by their role rather than their name. 

Looking at POC, think of the sailors aboard the ship in the opening scene, or the soldiers guarding the town, or the inhabitants of the town itself.  With a few notable exceptions, we know nothing of these characters except for the context they provide.  They have little or no individual attention focused on them. 

So for the rest of this discussion we’ll ignore them as well.

The other two types of secondary characters, BIT PLAYERS and KEY SECONDARY CHARACTERS, must serve a story purpose. They are not merely there to pad your story or because you thought it would be fun to throw in a bit of comic relief or a moment of poignancy. 
Before adding any secondary character, you should think about his purpose in terms of your Primary Characters and your Plot.

A secondary character should do at least one of three things
  • Move the story along:
    In other words, provide a catalyst for introducing or removing an obstacle to your Primary Character’s goal.   This can be an intentional or unintentional consequence of an action they take.  This can be a physical action or something more cerebral, such as offering advice or serving as a sounding board.
  • Act as a mirror or foil
    They do this by eliciting or highlighting some facet of your Primary Character’s inner self   - show aspects of personality, strengths, weaknesses and/or their value system.  Keep in mind, we are not talking about how these secondary characters exhibit their own  moral fiber, but rather that of your Primary Characters.
  • Enhance or illustrate some aspect of the PRIMARY character’s world, either his ordinary world, or his new world once he answers the call to adventure.  We need these references to show us what’s changing in his world so it’s clear he’s stepping out of his ‘comfort zone’ and charting what are, for him, new waters.

So, to serve the needs of your story and to make each secondary character meaningful, you must think first in terms of your plot, theme and primary characters.  What aspects of these do we need to emphasize and focus on?
  • Is there some personality trait or value system held by your primary character  that you want to have hit home with the reader?  Give us a secondary character who draws this out, either by playing on it or by trying to repress it.
  • Do we need to learn some key component of your hero’s backstory?  Give us a family member or longtime acquaintance who can refer to it in a natural manner without having to do a lot of stilted ‘info dumping’.
  • Do you want to show character growth?  Give us a secondary character with similar weaknesses or negative qualities in the beginning but who, unlike our primary characters, hasn’t grown and changed by the end. 
  • Does the story require some moments of levity to offset a somber tone, or moments of poignancy to teach our heroine about sacrifice?  Develop a best friend or protégé or mentor who will serve this purpose.

It is by finding the story purpose for your characters that you can use them to the greatest effect.

Okay - so the 3 purposes we discussed for secondary characters are:
  • Move the story forward
  • Show some facet of your protagonist’s character
  • Show some aspect of the character’s world

This is important - if you don’t take anything else away from this discussion, I hope you’ll remember this.  Your secondary character must do one of these things or he has no reason to be there.  Ideally he will be a multi-tasker and will serve more than one purpose.  This makes them more rounded and memorable as characters, and will cut down on the number of secondary cast members you must introduce and keep up with.

As with your Primary Characters, you want to make certain you flesh these secondary characters out enough so that, to the reader, their actions are credible and well motivated.

So how much characterization is enough?  The answer is - it depends.  You want to provide just enough so that your readers will find them believable, but not so much as to dilute the focus and muddy the waters of your story.

So let’s talk about BIT PLAYERS

These are more than Window Dressing, but still don’t have a lot of on-stage presence and/or don’t carry a lot of what I call ‘story weight’.  Yes, they must still serve at least one of the purposes we discussed a moment ago, but they’re not viewed as major players.

With lesser secondary characters you have more leeway to make their characterization less subtle, more over the top.  It’s not necessary or even desirable to tell the reader everything about them - that would bog the story down. 

You want to sprinkle in enough information to make their actions believable, but in the case of characters who appear only briefly onstage, this can be provided by context or station. 
  • For example, in POC think of the military men stationed in port - one can easily assume they are at least partially motivated by duty - which is to protect Port Royale and its residents. 
  • For the pirates, on the other hand, their goals and motivation would be the opposite - to steal, pillage and generally wreak havoc on the ships and ports they encounter. 

For most of the BIT PLAYERS this sort of context provides enough Characterization.  It’s not necessary to slow the pace of your story down by providing lengthy backstories for characters who are essentially walk-ons.   

But again, BIT PLAYERS, even if they only make a brief appearance, must perform a particular purpose in your story 

Pirates Of The Caribbean is chock full of wonderful examples of these type characters. 

For instance, on the side of the ‘good guys’ you have the two soldiers who confront Jack when he arrives in port and begins to cast a covetous eye on the naval ships.  These two characters are portrayed with a buffoonish quality, so one of their obvious roles is to provide comic relief. 

If you look closer, though,  you’ll see that they serve other purposes as well. 

  • Their presence shows us how adept Captain Jack Sparrow is at talking his way into and out of situations, how glib he is, and how he can twist words around to suit his unique world view and his purposes. 
  • Through this same interchange of dialog we also learn something about Jack’s goals and purpose for being in port.  In fact, he out and out tells them he is there to commandeer one of the naval ships.
  • The contrast in their reluctance to save Elizabeth when she falls from the parapet gives us a chance to see Jack’s more honorable side when he dives to her rescue, thus making him a more sympathetic, redeemable figure
  • Later, after Elizabeth is kidnapped and Will is frantic to find a way to rescue her, it is their reference to Captain Jack’s familiarity with the Black Pearl and it’s probable destination, that provides the impetus for Will to throw in his lot with a despised pirate.

In other words, these two ‘bit players’, do quite a bit to show facets of the other key players’ character and move the plot forward, and they do it in a way that conveys the information to the viewer in an active, fun and natural manner – no info dumping required. 

On the opposite side of the coin, we have their counterparts in the villain’s camp in the form of the bumbling pirates.  You know the two I mean - the one with the wooden eye that keeps popping out at inopportune moments, and his partner.  They too provide comic relief, but they also perform other functions within the story.

  • It is these two who capture Elizabeth during the initial raid and drag her to the Black Pearl. 
  • They are the ones who explain to Will that though his father was a pirate, he wasn’t a totally dishonorable man.  Though it isn’t their intention, they show Will that there are things about his father he can be proud of.  This allows him to come to terms with who his father was, and by extension, who he is.
  • Near the end of the movie, they briefly capture the spotlight again as they don women’s clothing and provide a diversion so the rest of the pirates can sneak aboard the British Naval ship and ambush the crew.   And it is their farcical bickering in this scene that tips off the crew that something diabolical is afoot.

A couple of other BIT PLAYERs with even briefer appearances and the functions they serve: 
  • There’s the harbor master who is easily bribed to turn a blind eye to Jack’s arrival
    He serves to immediately show that Jack wishes to keep his name secret and so we know he has something to hide. 
  • Then there’s Mr. Brown, the sword maker to whom Will is apprenticed.
    He not only provides unexpected aid in the capture of Jack Sparrow, but he also provides a foil to show us Will’s integrity and work ethic.

There are many more of these bit players we could talk about, but let’s move on now to a discussion of  KEY SECONDARY CHARACTERS 

These characters carry nearly as much weight in the story as do your protagonists.  It could be a villain or a mentor or a sidekick, or any one of a number of other roles, depending on the needs of your story.  These are the characters who will stand beside or against your hero and heroine as they struggle to meet their story goal. 

You want to make them more finely nuanced and more fully motivated than your Bit Players.  If it’s a villain, make certain he’s a worthy match for your protagonist - there’s nothing heroic in besting an inept or weak opponent.

Some examples of key secondary characters in POC:

Elizabeth’s father – Governor Swann.
Obviously he has his daughter’s best interests at heart, and he’s firmly in the camp of the ‘good guys’.  Yet he provides obstacles to our protagonists since he believes the best interests of Elizabeth include marriage to Lt. Norrington rather than the lowly blacksmith’s apprentice.  Because of his paternal interference, Elizabeth faces the unenviable dilemma of choosing between her heart’s desire and pleasing her father.
This character is a good example of the fact that just because someone in your story is a ‘good guy’, it doesn’t mean their story purpose will be to smooth the way for our protagonists.  You can use any of your secondary characters to provide obstacles.  And it generally makes for a stronger conflict if the protagonist’s choice is not between something bad and something good, but between two equally ‘right’ or equally ‘wrong’ choices.

Lieutenant Norrington
Here’s another ‘good guy’ whose role it is to present obstacles for our struggling lovers.  He’s in love with Elizabeth, is an honorable, earnest man, and he’s a stickler for duty, even when it would be easier to look the other way.  This is no brute or oaf, and his love for Elizabeth is genuine, thus she is hesitant to hurt his feelings.    

Captain Barbossa
Now we come to the villain of the piece.  As I said earlier, villains should be as well motivated as your protagonists, should have some – if not goodness at least humanness - about them,  and they should present a worthy opponent.
Captain Barbossa has all of these qualities.  His motivation is clear and believable – he means to be free of the curse no matter what.  We see a touch of humanity in him when he talks about how he chafes at the curse, how he longs to enjoy the taste of fresh fruit, the feel of the wind – we could almost feel sorry for the man if he wasn’t such a blackguard.  As for being a worthy adversary, he has that in spades.  After all, how do you best a man who can’t be killed!

Jack Sparrow
I’ve saved the best for last.  Now here is a secondary character that creates a memorable, lasting impression.  Jack is an unrepentant scallywag, stealing, lying, swaggering and boasting with an unapologetic flair.  Within the first few minutes of his appearance on screen he’s bribed an official, stolen a pouch of coins and announced plans to steal one of the naval ships in port.  But there is also an intelligence and wit, a panache and charisma, a certain devilish charm that draws us to him.
And in short order we begin to get a glimpse of the ‘good’ side of this character.  He rescues the drowning Elizabeth when no one else will.  Later, when he’s crossing swords with Will, it is his hesitation to kill the younger man that causes his subsequent capture. 

Throughout the rest of the movie, Jack continues to prance and swagger his way about, to act with over the top flamboyance, flashes of sly wit and dry humor, and through it all to remain totally and selfishly focused on his two-pronged goal of exacting revenge on the mutinous traitor Barbossa and reclaiming the Black Pearl.

But we also see his redeeming qualities – the compassion in his unique form of mentoring to Will, his loyalty to those he considers friends, his adherence to his own code of honor.  And we can sympathize with his desire for the freedom of the high seas that the Black Pearl represents.

Your secondary characters are most effective and memorable when they are fully developed with believable goals and motivations of their own.  Jack Sparrow, as a key secondary character, is as fully developed as our hero and heroine. 

And how does Jack help support the main story thread, that of the romance?   It’s not only by keeping the external thread of the story in motion - that of overtaking Barbossa’s crew and incidentally rescuing first Elizabeth and then Will.  Actually, he plays a key role in our main story arc, that of the romance and the character growth of our hero and heroine.

First, he makes it possible for Will to mount a rescue attempt for Elizabeth after she’s kidnapped.  It is highly unlikely that the man Will was at the opening of the movie could have found her, much less rescued her without Jack’s help.  But as I said,  Jack does much more than further this external plot..  In fact, he plays a key role in our primary story arc.

More than any other character or event, he is the key catalyst for Will’s growth during his hero’s journey.        At the beginning of the story, Will is reticent, unable to speak of his love for Elizabeth and he despises pirates and the life they live.  But when circumstances throw him into a reluctant partnership with Jack, that begins to change.  It is through Jack that Will learns that his father was himself a pirate, something that shakes the foundations of his self-identity. 

Then it is through Will’s ongoing interaction with Jack, learning about the man from both his actions and his unorthodox mentoring, that Will comes to terms with this legacy and even begins to embrace it a bit.  By the end of the story, Will is able to not only risk his own life to save that of a pirate, but openly declare his love for Elizabeth.

I want to quickly mention some other twists for ways to think about secondary characters.

  • They don’t necessarily have to appear onstage.   
    In POC for instance, there was one secondary character who never made an on-screen appearance.  Yet he had a major influence on the plot.
    ‘Bootstrap Bill’ Turner, the pirate with a conscience and our hero’s father, never appears onstage.  However, he is a key secondary character in that his actions set everything in motion, from Elizabeth’s first encounter with Will as children, to the pirates’ desperate quest for the final coin, to the reshaping of Will’s self-image. 

  • And secondary characters are not limited to people.
    For me, the creepiest character in the movie was not one of the pirates, but the monkey.  That little beast made my skin crawl, especially when he was in skeletal form.  But even this unorthodox character was able to fulfill multiple roles.
    In one scene he snatched the gold coin from the sinking ship, foiling Will’s attempt to  retrieve it (an obstacle character)
    In another he served to warn the two pirates left to guard the Black Pearl that our intrepid heroine Elizabeth had slipped aboard.  (a catalyst to action)

To sum up:
  • Make certain your secondary characters serve a useful purpose to the furtherance of your story.  And whenever possible, have them serve more than one purpose.
  • Provide sufficient goals and motivation for these characters, equal to the weight they carry in the story.
  • Remember, the most memorable books, the kind of books that land on a reader’s keeper shelf, are those with well-developed, fully realized characters who are both believable and larger than life.

If you start with the ‘Why’ of a character - identifying and focusing on his story purpose - you can’t go wrong.

I’ll leave you with this thought from author Barbara Delinsky: 
Alone, a major character is like the right hand picking out single notes on a piano. The notes may have rhythm and a tune; in the hands of a maestro, they may even have feeling and heart. But the tune remains largely one-dimensional until a second player, the left hand, joins in. When that left hand picks out single notes of a complementary theme, you have a pleasant duet. Add chords by either or both hands, and you have a full-bodied song. The supporting cast in a novel supply the notes in those chords. They shouldn't overpower, jar, or bore. Used to their fullest, they turn a song into an anthem that is beautiful, meaningful, and memorable.

So what do you think? Are there some aspects of Secondary Characters I've left out here? Do you have a favorite Secondary Character from either a book or movie that stuck with you long after you closed the book or the credits rolled?


  1. Love this post Winnie.

    Most good shows have terrific secondary characters. Because they can color outside the lines, they're more fun. Just like Jack Sparrow.

    Mater in cars. Whoopie Goldberg in Ghosts. Kit in Failure to Launch. All of the parents in Sweet Home Alabama. The minions in Despicable Me.

    Thanks Winnie!

    1. Hi Connie. Those are ALL fabulous exmples of secondary characters who really pull their weight story-wise

  2. It's been so long since I've been here! *waves sheepishly* But you had me at Pirates of The Caribbean. I love those movies, so much. I'm also a huge fan of secondary characters. Of course, my secondary characters always seem to try to take over the story...

    I just finished a series where the heroine's best friend was easily the best character. I loved him so much!

    Excellent post :P

    1. Hi Nicki! So glad my post was able to lure you back to us :)

    2. Hi Nicki! It's good to see you again!

  3. Thanks for this post.

    I am loving all the pictures from the conference that I am seeing on facebook. One of these days I hope to get to go to a conference.

    Have a great weekend everyone.

    1. Hi Wilani, thanks for stopping by. I'm enjoying the conference vicariously through posts as well. I couldn't go this year because of my foot surgery, but maybe next year...

  4. Lee-Ann B here - thanks for sharing your post! I think one of the most memorable secondary characters for me is Mr. Collins from Jane Austen`s Pride and Prejudice. Reading about him is hilarious, and watching actors bring him to life is fun. :)

    1. Hi Lee-Ann. I agree, Mr. Collins is a great secondary character!

  5. Winner, what a great in-depth post on secondary characters. A post to save and review, for sure! Thank you! Always love your blogs.

  6. Winnie, this is a fabulous post!

    Some of my favorite secondary characters are Captain Stottlemeyer and Lieutenant Disher in Monk. I love that show, and they played the foil to Monk perfectly. :-)

    I have a secondary character in my WIP who keeps trying to make the story about him. I'm going to have to read the riot act to him and keep him firmly in control!

    I'll be pinning this post to my Pinterest board for further reference!

    1. Jan, Monk is my all time favorite show! I definitely agree about the Captain and Disher as great foils for Monk. I loved how the relationships among them developed as the seasons progressed.

    2. Hi Jan! Ooooohh, I love Monk! Those two you mentioned are great secondary characters. I also think the casting directors did a great job when they transitioned frrom Cherona to Natalie - that could have sunk the show, but instead it took it in a great new direction.

  7. Great post, Winnie. Lots of good information. I have actually never seen Pirates of the Caribbean but this definitely makes me want to see it.

    1. Oh my goodness Sandy, you absolutely have to see that movie - it's one of my faves to study when it comes to secondary characters done well (no to mention that it is fun in its own right)

  8. Winnie, a great post! Thanks for all the great information!

  9. To one Winnie from another Winnie: I really enjoyed reading your post. I'm not a writer, but I'm intrigued with the "science" behind writing. Secondary characters can certainly help bring a story to life. I love finding entertaining and humorous ones in stories. Your examples were great!

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