Friday, March 10, 2017


If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m what is known as a “plotter” in writers’ jargon. I start out a new book by—oh, joy!—sketching out characters and backstory and a rough outline before I ever write a line.

So, I usually know my main characters—hero, heroine and villain—pretty well before we even get started. But the secondary characters of my novels? That’s where my intuition really comes out to play. All sorts of vivid personalities come out of the woodwork of my mind as I’m writing to solve problems, take the plot in new directions and help the hero and heroine unburden themselves. The only problem is corralling these critters. They’ve been known to take over a book, and they often demand a whole new book of their own!

I set boundaries for my secondaries by giving them defined jobs to do. That way they aren’t just cluttering up the story with diverting, but essentially useless character sketches. The jobs I assign most often:

Where would Frodo be without Sam, his best pal?

--Best pal. Heroes and heroines need someone to confide in, someone with whom they can share their feelings about that new person they’ve just met, someone who may even want them to think hard about what they’re doing. Without a best pal, H/Hs may be forced to recite 38 straight pages of dull internal monologue, rather than participating in three pages of spritely dialogue. I’ve given this role to a big-hearted older secretary, a snarky teenager, the hero’s former psychiatrist, a space pirate’s first officer. In my current WIP, Follow the Sun, a “child-of-the-Sixties-turned-mountain-woman” takes the role.

--Villain’s minion. For the same reasons the good guys need best pals, villains need, well, somebody. Usually that somebody is a fall guy or a minion, who is forced to listen to the villain rant on about how he (or she) is going to destroy the couple and take over the galaxy, etc. etc. But this is such a cliché that I like to split the villain himself in two. That is, I have two villains so they can talk to each other: the bloodthirsty Dar brothers in Trouble in Mind ; the husband-and-wife Thrane spies in Fools Rush In. Sometimes the “minion” can be the boss, dispatching the villain on his murderous errand, as is the case in my current WIP.

--Red herring. Since I write thriller/suspense kinds of plots, sometimes I don’t want to give the villain away too soon. In that case I need a good-guy-turned-bad-guy, or a bad-guy-turned-good-guy. These are the hardest characters to write, and, believe it or not, they sometimes even surprise me!

--Information sources. These characters hold key pieces of the puzzle for the hero and heroine without which they can’t continue to solve the central problem of the plot. There are just one or two of these per book, and the H/H almost always pay a price—emotional or otherwise—for the information they get.

--Help/support. These characters can include anything from family or community members to pets, bartenders or ship’s crew. Because I am now on my fourth book in a unified series, characters from previous books show up in these roles (and satisfy regular readers’ needs to find out how they’re doing). This category is where crowd control must be strictly enforced!

There are a couple of things I try NOT to do with my secondary characters, too:

--Have too many of them. I write big, complex novels with lots of subplots, but I try not to get carried away with secondary characters. In Trouble in Mind, I may have a hero and a heroine trying to save a mother and her son being chased by two alien hunters on behalf of another alien who is trying to take over his planet (oh, and in the end the good guys are helped by a Navajo tribe), but I try not to sketch out every gas station attendant along the way. Really.

--Name all of them. Unless that server at the diner has something important to do with the plot, do not give her a name. She may need to be there because your H/H must stop at the diner and have the conversation of their lives, but she must remain nameless forevermore. The exception to this rule is the bridge crew of a starship. The helmsman may have nothing else to do with the plot of a space opera, but a captain just can’t say, “Hey, you, warp speed NOW!” over and over again. All the bridge crew members must have names and, depending on how long your cruise is, you may need several names in those seats to allow for different shifts. So, I apologize to a recent reviewer of my space opera Fools Rush In, who complained there were too many names to keep up with. That was unavoidable. Maybe s/he should try reading Trouble in Mind instead.

How about you? How do you wrangle your secondary characters to keep them in line?

Cheers, Donna 


  1. Oooh! I like combining roles: the villain's minion is also an information source, the best friend can also be a red herring. I try to consolidate as many secondary characters as I can- while still making sense.

    1. Ah! Very clever! Makes me want to read your books ASAP! I think I may sometimes do this unconsciously--that intuition at work again. :)

  2. I never really thought about it before (probably because I'm a pantser not a plotter) but my secondary characters have their place set by their job/skill/family relationship first. But I know what you mean about wanting to grab their own piece of limelight. I was working with an old villain again recently, and the chill I got while revising one of his scenes had me thinking about his origin story and whether I could also bring him back again in the future.


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