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Roll for Charisma. . . why does this die have negative numbers?

14 December 2010

A while back, Nick (@SexCpotatoes on Twitter) mentioned here on the blog how tough it was to write secondary characters. That can definitely be a problem, because you want your main character to be the main character of the book, but you also want him to have an interesting supporting cast. The problem is, if you make those characters too interesting, they might hijack the story and steal your main character’s thunder.

This might not be an altogether bad thing, mind you. Sometimes, the secondary characters I think up have a way of promoting themselves to the main character — the original main character of White Male, 34 was the Sheriff’s Deputy, but his confidential informant hijacked that one pretty early on in development.

But what if you want your secondary characters to remain secondary? How do you make them human without going into too much detail, spending too much time on them? How do you make them seem like real people with real motivations without telling their stories as well?

I know one writer who writes out dossiers for all of his major and minor characters. He knows where they were born, where they went to school, and their job history before we meet them in the book. It’s almost like he has a military or FBI file on each one. That works for him, but I tried it and got bored with it.

My method for attempting to make my secondary characters have their own story is to just tell it, though not in the course of the novel in which they appear. I’ll often write a short story or two for each character (or “speaking part”) in a book. These stories don’t really go anywhere but into a folder on my computer, but they’re immensely helpful in helping me get to know the character before I put him or her into the novel.

What about you, folks? What’s your method for crafting those all-important (but let’s not make them too important) supporting characters?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 December 2010 0715

    I tend to keep dossiers on my characters as well. I need to know who they are before I can tell their stories. Plus, it helps keep things consistent. It drives me nuts when I know characters better than their authors do. The best examples I can think of are in TV. In the Golden Girls, Dorothy is pregnant with her son, Michael, when she gets married. She is married for 38 years. We meet her after her divorce, then we meet Michael, who should be about 40, but is in his early 20’s. Don’t even get me started on how many previous careers and girlfriends MacGyver was supposedly serious and exclusive with throughout high school and college.

    • 14 December 2010 0810

      Star Trek’s been extremely guilty of that, too. There were plenty of inconsistencies in the original series, but when it got to movies, it only got worse. Don’t even get me started on DeMora Sulu.

  2. Nate permalink
    14 December 2010 0957

    Chuck Cunningham and Judy Winslow are still upstairs.

    • 14 December 2010 1009

      That’s a good one. And creepy — Judy just walked upstairs one day and vanished. As far as I can remember, no one ever mentioned her again. It’s like she found a gateway to a hell dimension in the upstairs linen closet.

      • Nate permalink
        14 December 2010 1252

        If by “gateway to a hell dimension” you meant “a career in porn and smoking a lot of pot,” you’d be correct.

  3. Trace permalink
    14 December 2010 1127

    I always just assumed Chuck Cunningham went off and joined the American Communist Party, which is why the rest of the family never mentioned him again.

    • 14 December 2010 1421

      Well, yeah. Who could forget that classic episode where Fonzie and the Cunninghams testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee?

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