The TRUE Function of Secondary Characters
Building secondary characters is incredibly fun. Who doesn’t love dreaming up a romantic interest? Brainstorming unique characteristics for a mentor? Crafting the sass of the sidekick and best friend? We love plucking quirky, vibrant people from the recesses of our minds — but simply crafting interesting people isn’t enough. Secondary characters are more than just plot devices, comedic relief, or world building tools…
Secondary characters should be in conversation with the themes your story explores and the internal journey your character is on.
At the core of every great story are two key concepts: the story’s point and the main character’s internal obstacle. Your story point is the message you want readers to take away, it’s the core theme of your character’s journey — it’s what they need to learn or prove by the end of the story (learn more here). Your main character’s internal obstacle is the misbelief, lie, or fear that’s standing in the way of achieving their goals — it’s what they need to unlearn in order to learn or prove the story’s point (learn more here).
Your secondary characters need to be in conversation with one or both of these concepts. In most situations, they’ll either represent the story point or the character’s internal obstacle, or be on a similar journey of change, the outcome of which exemplifies or challenges your story’s point.
Popular Secondary Character Functions
A character who represents the story’s point.
They have already learned the lesson the main character needs to learn and they can help teach it. (Often a mentor, friend, or minor character — but can also be an antagonist!)
A character who represents the main character’s internal obstacle.
They are struggling against the same internal block and therefore represent what could happen if the main character doesn’t change. (Often a villain, antagonist, or minor secondary character.)
A character whose positive arc proves the story point differently.
This is a character who needs to learn the story’s point for a different reason. They’re likely struggling with a different internal obstacle. (Often a friend or love interest!)
A character whose negative arc proves the story’s point.
This is a character who needs to learn the story point, and is struggling with a similar internal obstacle as the main character, but who fails to overcome it when given the chance. The negative consequences of their decline prove the story’s point. (Often a villain or antagonist.)
A character who goes against the story’s point.
Sometimes characters can serve to complicate the message of the story, by countering it or proving it wrong in a small way. (Usually a minor character.)
Let’s look at some popular secondary characters to see how this works!
Example: Jon Snow, A Game of Thrones
Story Point: There is no room for honor in the game for power.
Jon’s Internal Obstacle: You gain honor by gaining power and glory.
In A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Jon Snow joins the Night’s Watch — a group of men dedicated to protecting the country from threats to the north by guarding the Wall — and tries to climb its hierarchy in search of glory. When he finds out his father was executed and his brother has declared war, Jon is forced to choose between honoring his vows to the Night’s Watch and staying to fight a thankless battle OR abandoning his vows to help his brother become king. Jon chooses to stay, proving the story point.
Lord Commander Mormont
Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, represents the story point. The Lord Commander already understands that glory and honor are not the same thing and he spends the story trying to teach that to Jon. Instead of appointing Jon as a Ranger, the Lord Commander makes Jon his personal steward, grooming him for command rather than glory. When Jon considers abandoning his vows to the Night’s Watch to join his brother’s war, the Lord Commander ultimately offers Jon the choice to leave without his honor, or remain with it intact. He’s a steadfast example and teacher of the story point until Jon finally learns it.
Sam is another brother of the Night’s Watch, a bookish boy mocked for his size and timidness. He represents an alternative positive character arc to Jon’s. When Sam arrives to join the Night’s Watch he’s a weak character who cares little about honor or glory. Because of Jon’s protection and friendship, Sam grows braver and starts to care about and invest in the mysterious threats facing the Night’s Watch. While he’s not ever likely to seek or find glory, he does prove himself honorable when he organizes a crew of other boys to stop Jon from deserting to join his brother’s war. Sam’s friendship helps teach Jon what true honor looks like, and his positive arc also proves that honor and power are not the same.
Example: Lizzy Bennet, A Pride and Prejudice
Story Point: Love can overcome the obstacles of class.
Lizzy’s Internal Obstacle: Money makes people selfish and arrogant.
When Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice opens, Lizzy — a daughter in a poorer family — fiercely believes that all wealthy people are arrogant and vows to never marry for anything less than love. As she scorns the wealthy Mr. Darcy, her internal obstacle continually blinds her to the parts of him that are changing, and that aren’t arrogant. In the end, she’s forced to face the fact she has been prideful. When she apologizes (and he does in return), their resulting marriage proves the story point. There is, of course, a wealth of love/class conversation in Lizzy’s sister’s romances, as well as in our favorite Mr. Darcy’s positive character arc, but let’s look at two less discussed secondary characters.
Mr. Darcy’s excessively rich and selfish aunt represents Lizzy’s internal obstacle. It seems that Lady Catherine would give Lizzy every reason to believe that money makes people wretchedly arrogant. She shows up in force at the end of the story for an epic showdown in which she confronts Lizzy about an alleged proposal between her and Mr. Darcy that doesn’t exist. At this point, however, Lizzy has learned that Mr. Darcy went to great lengths to save her family’s reputation from her little sister’s escapades. Lady Catherine is horrible to Lizzy, she humiliates her and her family in a multitude of ways. But by juxtaposing Mr. Darcy against his aunt, Lizzy realizes that not all rich people are selfish. Lady Catherine’s visit, rather than leading Lizzy to uphold her prejudice, helps her overcome it.
Lizzy’s best friend’s subplot goes against the story point. Charlotte Lucas is the eldest daughter in a poorer family. At twenty-seven years old and unmarried, she’s become an economic burden on her family. When Mr. Collins, Lizzy’s cousin, proposes to her, she agrees enthusiastically, despite not loving him. For Charlotte, the choice to marry is a reasonable economic one, and is therefore in direct contrast with the story’s point. She seems content and happy, if not in love, when we see her in her marriage. As Pride and Prejudice is, in many ways, a satire, Charlotte’s story represents a far more realistic view of marriage at the time.
Example: Laia of Serra, An Ember in the Ashes
Story Point: Your power lies in your hands, and your hands only.
Laia’s Internal Obstacle: Some people are inherently strong, others inherently weak.
An Ember in the Ashes opens with Laia’s family getting attacked, her grandparents murdered, and her brother imprisoned by their oppressors — the Martial Empire. Instead of trying to save her brother on her own, Laia sets out to find the ‘Resistance’, a group of rebel fighters, to convince them to help. The Resistance forces Laia to pose as a slave and spy in the Martial military academy in exchange for their help. Laia does so, enduring horrible traumas while finding her own strength. In the end she finds out the Resistance lied, they never intended to free her brother, and she should have trusted herself instead.
Elias is the second POV in An Ember in the Ashes; he’s a main character in his own right and a love interest for Laia, and he represents an alternative positive arc to Laia’s. Elias is a student in the Martial academy. He’s a trained killer in an army of faceless killers. All he wants is physical freedom and he plans to run away. When he’s entered into the trials for the next Emperor, however, he is forced down a path that intertwines with Laia’s and forces him to learn that physical freedom isn’t true freedom. When he’s told to kill Laia as part of his trials, or he’ll be executed, he realizes that true freedom lies in the understanding that you always have a choice. By sacrificing his own life to save hers, he proves the story’s point. While Elias struggles with freedom, and Laia with inner strength, they both have to learn that their power lies in their own hands.
As another student in the academy, who is Elias’s best friend and who hates Laia, Helene represents a negative arc that proves the story point. Unlike Elias, Helene is fiercely loyal to the Martial Empire. At the beginning of the story, unbeknownst to Elias, she makes a deal with a Martial holy man: if she promises to swear fealty to whoever wins the Emperor trials, then Elias will live. She agrees and devotes herself to helping Elias win. As the story progresses, things spiral out of Helene’s control. Elias falls in love with Laia. Elias doesn’t want to win the trials. Though Helene shows signs of disliking the Empire’s choices, she doesn’t shake her loyalty. In the end, when Elias refuses to kill Laia to become Emperor, Helene keeps her promise and pledges her fealty to the awful student who does win. When Helene catches Laia and Elias escaping, she lets them go, but when he begs her to come with them, she refuses to break her vow — still trusting the Empire and the holy man more than her own judgement. Helene stands in direct contrast to Laia and Elias’s journeys. Her inability to see her own power pushes her best friend away and leads her straight into the jaws of a horrid Empire.
Craft Your Own Secondary Characters
Before you start building out your story’s cast, make sure you have your story point and main character’s internal obstacle drafted. Then, find ways to put your characters’ arcs, struggles, and personalities in conversation with one or both of them. For major characters, give them arcs of their own. For minor characters, a strong character arc is less important, but always impactful if included! If you’d like support crafting a specific character, or building out your whole cast, sign up for a free call here. We’d be happy to chat over custom coaching programs with you!
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