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Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Secondary Character Hierarchy

Please welcome guest blogger Karen Duvall

This is one of my favorite workshops that I like to give at conferences and present to writers groups. My workshop offers a detailed analysis of the secondary character types.

Characters are, of course, the foundation for great stories and when it comes to secondary characters, I have grouped them by type and level of importance. I created a chart as an overview of the secondary character categories.

First let's review the purpose of all secondary characters:

Aid the main character in his or her story goal and help define the main character’s role in the story.

Provide obstacles that prevent the hero and heroine from reaching their goal.

Force the hero and heroine to prove their worthiness in reaching their story goal.

Help a main character grow and assist her in completing her character arc

Provide contrast and comparison with the main character physically, emotionally and mentally

Provide drama because conflict can’t happen in a vacuum

Interact with the main character and force her to show her true colors.

Broaden the scope of the story with texture and variety.

Expand a story’s theme (ex: The Big Chill — reunion story that is enriched by the variety of character types.)

Develop subplots that add multiple dimensions to the primary plot

Level 1

Spear Carriers: These are character helpers who provide a small yet necessary service to the main character. A spear carrier is a bit player who isn't fully developed because he or she doesn't have a personal stake in the outcome of the story and will probably appear only once. This minor player may be planned ahead of time, but can also be created as needed. Examples of spear carriers would be the waitress who spills coffee on the heroine during a scene in a restaurant, or the traffic cop who gives the hero or heroine a speeding ticket when they're trying to get somewhere in a hurry.

Cameos: These secondaries play an even lesser role than spear carriers. They’re background figures, props that help set a scene or establish atmosphere. They have a brief on-screen performance without any personal stake in the story and are sprinkled throughout a book because they don’t compete with the hero or heroine for attention. Warning: be careful not to include too many details about a cameo that could risk derailing the plot in an unfocused direction.

Examples of cameos would be:

• a crowd in an accident scene (establishes location of town or city)

• the woman whose hat flies away as she walks down the street on a windy day (establishes weather conditions)

• a couple necking on a park bench (establishes setting and tone)

Ghosts: I'm not talking about the "woo-woo" kind of ghost. These are figurative characters made from memories, the ones who appear in name only and never have a physical presence on stage. Not every story will have ghosts, but they most often occur in backstory as the remembered ex-boyfriend, relative, best friend from high school, etc. Use sparingly because they are special. Though ghosts are fun to play with, too many in a story will make it odd and unbalanced.

Ghosts might include:

• "Her great grandma Mable used to always say..." (Mable might be a recurring ghost the heroine brings up to impress other characters with her words of wisdom)

• "His ex-wife haunts him to this day, and she isn’t even dead." (The hero finds remnants of his old married life at the most inopportune times, like a bra under the bed, bobby pins under the sink, etc.)

Level 2

Allies: These are friends of the main character who offer aid and are commonly found in quest stories like the Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Rings. These characters share an ordeal that bonds them. Christopher Vogler, author of the Writers Journey, calls groups of allies “teams.”

An ally can be a best friend, co-worker, or a relative who has the heroine's best interests in mind. This is the person from whom the heroine would borrow a car or money, or ask for a place to stay.

An ally may or may not have a stake in the story’s outcome; it depends on how close you make him or her to the heroine. They will appear in several scenes and be more developed than a spear carrier.

You can afford to use more details in creating the ally. Once you decide the ally’s function, make sure there are contrasts and comparisons with the heroine that serve to show her true colors.

Guardians: The purpose of the guardian is to block the heroine's way toward her story goal. A guardian challenges the heroine and tests her strength and cunning.
There can be guardians who stand in the way of the villain, too. Villains are heroes of their own story and should face similar obstacles as the main character.

Obvious examples of guardians are night watchmen, doormen, bouncers, IRS auditors, anyone who presents a barrier the heroine must confront before moving forward through the plot.

Avoid using stereotypes to represent this type of character. Be original and creative. The guardian could be the heroine's big brother who’s trying to protect her from single men with questionable intentions, but he’s actually blocking her way to finding true love.

Rivals: Similar to a guardian’s role, rivals exist as obstacles to the heroine's story goal and act as her competition. Though rivals are enemies, a rival is not the villain because he or she only wants to compete and win, but not necessarily eliminate the heroine, which is the villain’s goal.

Rivals are foils who get in the way and can either be annoying barriers with comic side effects, or serious obstacles that stand to ruin the heroine's life.

Rivals are motivated by jealousy and envy, and can have low self-esteem. They may be weak characters, as opposed to a villain who is strong. Rivals are bullies, jealous ex-girlfriends, petty individuals with an axe to grind. It’s possible for a rival to change over the course of the story and become an ally. An example of this would be from the book and movie Legally Blond: El’s ex-boyfriend’s fiance starts out hating and fearing El’s relationship with her fiance, but by story’s end looks up to El for her intelligence and strength.

Level 3

Mentors: The heroine goes to her mentor for advice. Mentors may have a limited relationship with the heroine, and might not even like her, but are compelled by their station (military officer) or moral obligation (priest) to help. If the mentor relationship begins as adversarial, it’s not unusual for a friendship to develop by story’s end because both characters grow by virtue of what the other has taught him or her, whether the lesson is accidental or on purpose.

Mentors should contrast the character they’re mentoring because this will help establish their yin/yang relationship. The mentor figure can have exaggerated characteristics to make him or her stand out (physical scars, mental or emotional hang-ups, phobias, etc.). Add contrasts to the mentor’s personality to give him more depth, such as the police captain who adores his kitten or the pro football player who dabbles in astrology. Warning: Be careful not to go overboard because you’ll risk creating a cartoon caricature if the character becomes too over-the-top.

Sidekicks: Like the ally, the sidekick is a friend, but a strong bond is created between the sidekick and the heroine prior to when the story starts because it was forged by a shared ordeal from their past. They could have fought in a war together, or struggled through high school as fellow nerds, or because of a shared tragedy have an equal desire to right wrongs. But the heroine should be top dog in the relationship because of her stronger personality and greater confidence. The hero or heroine is always the one who calls the shots.

Sidekicks, like mentors, can afford to be more colorful, more exaggerated, because they don’t carry the burden of moving the story forward as the main character does.

Sidekicks should be as thoroughly developed and motivated as the main character. Examples of duos that include a sidekick would be Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Sherlock Homes and Dr. Watson.

Secondary character dynamics

Though not essential, you can exaggerate the differences between the main and secondary characters by using contrasts like fat/thin, quiet/loud, light/dark, hostile/happy, passionate/cold, etc. The important thing is to set them apart in an obvious way so they're not competing for the reader's attention.

A novel is generally much richer when there are multiple connections between characters. Interwoven character relationships can create natural plot complications all on their own.

Note: Always remember to find the balance between your main and supporting characters and don’t confuse the story by overloading it with people.
I hope you find the character hierarchy helpful in the development of your novel. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask them in the comments.

©2011 Karen Duvall

Karen Duvall's new urban fantasy novel, KNIGHT'S CURSE (Harlequin Luna), was chosen as one of Publisher's Weekly's Top 10 romance picks for fall 2011. The sequel, DARKEST KNIGHT, will be released in March 2012.

Knight’s Curse

A skilled knife fighter since the age of nine, Chalice knows what it's like to live life on the edge—precariously balanced between the dark and the light. But the time has come to choose. The evil sorcerer who kidnapped her over a decade ago requires her superhuman senses to steal a precious magical artifact...or she must suffer the consequences.

Desperate to break the curse that enslaves her, Chalice agrees. But it is only with the help of Aydin—her noble warrior-protector—that she will risk venturing beyond the veil to discover the origins of her power. Only for him will she dare to fully embrace her awesome talents. For a deadly duel is at hand, and Chalice alone will have to decide between freedom...and the love of her life.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a helpful post!

Alysia said...

This is a great post, Karen. Thanks for sharing with us!


TheaH said...

This is a fabulous analysis. Thanks so much!

Nancy Crampton-Brophy said...

Do you have a copy of the photo on your website? This was very helpful.

Karen Duvall said...

You're so very welcome! I'm glad you found it helpful. It sure has helped me. :)

If you'd like me to send you the pdf of the chart, just email me directly at jkduvall at bendbroadband dot com.

Jodi said...

Very beneficial post, Karen. Another one for my files.

Joelle Walker

Judi said...

Awesome post. Really condensed what those secondary characters need to do.

perisquire30 said...


Thanks for this post. It really gets you thinking about your secondary characters and what they can and should bring to your story. I'd also really appreciate a copy of the PDF.

~Roni Lynne

Chris Devlin said...

Wow, you've really given way more thought to secondary characters than I have. Makes me think hard about how I use them. Great post, cheers!