Your main character is the center of your story, but there’s more people in this world than just Protagonist McGee. Secondary characters are treasure troves of importance no matter what they do.
So let’s talk about them.
I don’t care what a secondary does if they don’t have a goal. Every character should have a goal. The goal gives your secondary characters a reason to be there in the first place. Make it specific. It should be something more than “Side Character Charlie is Protagonist McGee’s best friend so that’s why they hang out.” That’s too vague. If your main character is on a quest and your secondary characters are there to help, why? Do they hate the Big Bad as much/more? Are they desperately trying to save their own loved ones? Do they want glory for themselves?
There are infinite ways to do this that are infinitely interesting. The point is give them a specific goal. Something they want to accomplish. It can be anything. It can conflict or be in line with the protagonist’s goals, but don’t let it be too vague. None of the “They’re best friends” or “they’re noble and they’re gonna help out.”
Secondary Characters Serve the Story. Not the Protagonist.
Too often I feel side characters exist or have traits that serve the protagonist only. The side character makes the protagonist look good in some way usually. The side character is bitter and the Protag gives them life changing wisdom, the Protag is brave and strong, the side character is a jerk and makes the Protag look so noble and good in comparison.
Even if your side characters are there helping the protagonist with the quest, remember they are serving your plot/story. They aren’t a tool to make your protagonist look awesome in some way.
A good way to avoid this is to make the side characters equal to the protagonist in some way. Maybe your protagonist is a great warrior, but is a complete dolt when it comes to learning things like politics or learning “academic” things. Maybe your protagonist is really bad at dealing with people in social situations, but your side character can work a room like it’s no one’s business.
Give your secondary character some power over the protagonist in at least one area. Whether it be a skill or a trait. Something they can do or are good at that the protagonist doesn’t have.
Give Them Their Own Lives
You are the center of your life, but you probably know that the world doesn’t serve or revolve around you. Your loved ones may care for you and be there for you, but they have their own lives, struggles, and desires. Characters should be treated the same way.
When I come across characters who know the protagonist for 5 minutes and then decide to drop everything to accompany them on their journey, I don’t get it. Why would this person who has their own life just up and leave everything for this person? This is usually “solved” by the secondary character not having friends, family, or anything better to do, but again that feels like a cheat.
Your secondary characters need to have something, anything, that makes them do this. They need to have their own background and need to have their own reasons. The secondary characters may not be the focal point of the story, but they are the focal point of their own lives.
This is a great way to stir conflict. The secondary character wants to go on an adventure so they leave their home and family behind, but then shit goes down and maybe they regret it. Maybe they feel they bit off more than they can chew. Maybe saving their loved ones is more important to them than ensuring the protagonist reaches their goal and they have to make a heartbreaking choice.
Don’t limit yourself. The more you have to work with, the more choices you have, the better you can write.
Authentic Products of Their Backgrounds
Too often secondary characters have had a miserable life. They open up to the protagonist. The protagonist gives them a hug. It’s never brought up again and the secondary character seems to have forgotten it.
Yeah, priorities will change. If they’re out saving the world, they aren’t going to be brooding about how they were orphaned as a kid. All the same, the secondary characters need their own background that isn’t in line with the other characters.
A great way to do this is to give them vastly different backgrounds. Maybe the protagonist grew up wealthy, the secondary character grew up poor. They were brought up under different religions. Different levels of education. Trained for different career paths. One was raised in a peaceful nation, the other was raised in a conflict, war-torn area. Anything.
What this does is give each character a unique perspective on the situation. It allows for conflict and disagreement.
But if you give a character a background, you have to use it.
If your protagonist is wealthy and a secondary character didn’t, that needs to be reflected in how they act. Maybe they get too pulled into the protagonist’s lifestyle. Maybe their goal is to now try and make a bunch of money/glory to support their loved ones back home. When the protagonist blows money away, maybe it irritates the other character. The secondary character might be more sensitive to the plight of the poor than the protagonist is as a result.
Remember that these characters’ lives didn’t start when they were introduced in the story. They did things, had lives, had people they care about, learned things, and so on. What were they like when before the story? What do they do when they aren’t in the story?
Keep it authentic and use it if you’re going to create it.
First off, I think it’s fine to have the comic relief character, the smart one, the wise old mentor dude, the romantic interest, the brooding mysterious one, etc.
The problem is when that becomes their defining trait. It’s the only thing about them that contributes to the story. It’s the only thing that we ever learn about these characters. That’s when they become stock characters or “cardboard cutouts” as they’re sometimes called.
Each character should play a role, but if you give them one trait, give them a flaw, something that could stir a conflict, or something that the protagonist doesn’t have themselves.
Maybe your comic relief character is hilarious, but maybe they’re very naive. Maybe they trust the wrong person and end up in trouble and need to be saved, which pisses off the other characters because the first one should have known better. Or, maybe the comic relief character is also charming. Not only are they funny, but they’re also smart in their own right, knowing how to work and manipulate people.
Another way is to tell the reader why they do these things and for reasons that don’t just serve the protagonist. The smart one might act like a know-it-all because they’re insecure. The romantic interest might “tease” the protagonist because that’s what they like to do and have done before with other guys/gals.
It’s okay to give characters roles. It’s fine to even give them “stock” traits, but make them more than that. Make them useful, flawed, or give them an advantage.
Relationships and Reactions
As soon as a secondary character is introduced, boom, they’re 100% dedicated to the protagonist. They do nothing else, the relationship to the protagonist is the most important, nothing else matters.
Instead, give secondary characters relationships to each other. Rivalries, romance, friendship/family, etc. Something that doesn’t have to do with the protagonist. If this is a group situation, the dynamic is going to change and it’s not always going to revolve around the protagonist.
The protagonist can be involved. Maybe a budding love affair happens and the protagonist doesn’t like it because it’s distracting (in this situation, they shouldn’t just break off the love affair because they portag said so), maybe the friendship that forms between two side characters is more important to them emotionally than their friendship with the protagonist. Maybe the portag thinks the rivalry is innocent and ignores it, but it gets worse and actually causes trouble.
If you have more than one secondary character in the group, they should react to each other. Think of how much group dynamics shift in real life based on who is there and when.
Better Off in the End
Formula: Nameless peasant gets called to go on a journey to fight the Big Bad, learns a lot, big battle, protagonist wins, is suddenly crowned ruler of everything.
Instead, give that to a secondary character. Why can’t a secondary character become the best mage in the world in the end? Why can’t they get a bunch of money/power and be good at it? Why does that only happen to the protagonist.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule of course, sometimes it’s necessary for a protagonist to be in the those positions, but it doesn’t have to be all the time.
Let’s say Protagonist and Pals are trying to get rid of a bad ruler. Maybe the protagonist makes friends with a noble. That noble becomes the new king/queen at the end and not the protagonist.
This is where Lord of the Rings got it right. Frodo’s cowardly friend Samwise becomes the mayor of the Shire, gets the girl, gets the dream life he always wanted, while Frodo kinda chills on his own and then goes into retirement with the elves. People talk about “tropey Tolkien” but this is one place where he does unconventional stuff, where the main character doesn’t get the girl and gets everything they’ve always wanted. That’s given to Sam.
Why do this? Because it allows your secondary characters to really grow in a way that isn’t all about the protagonist. Your side character grows into a good ruler so that they are ready for/deserve that position by the end of the story.
World Building and Mystery
Your characters don’t have to run all over the map for the story, but this world you created is probably bigger than just the area the players are playing in.
Once you’ve fleshed out your side characters, give them some flair.
Maybe there are places, cultures, races, etc. that the protagonist (and by extension, the reader) will never go and never see. Different cultures, religions, landscapes, etc. that they would never be exposed to. Why not have a secondary character be from that place, or of that culture, or have visited there. Make them act differently, subtly as a result.
For example, I know a pastor who does the sign of the cross often when he sees an accident on the road or hears bad news in general. If I didn’t know anything about Christianity, this would seem odd, and I might never get an explanation of what that means. That sort of thing might be kind of cool to put in your story.
This might add some complications: the language will be different, the religion, the cultures, etc. but at the same time, that’s not a bad thing and you can pull it off without making it feel like cheating.
Maybe there’s some other mysterious thing about a secondary character that’s never fully explained. Maybe it’s a weird habit, reflex, or mannerism. Nothing big or anything, but something that maybe lends a little mystery and intrigue.
Not Everyone is Important
Everyone is the center of their own world, but not every person is important to their story.
Just the same, not every person your protagonist encounters will have some secret knowledge, a valuable artifact, a piece of wisdom or advice. Some people your protagonist meets will be useless, rude, unhelpful, or maybe they never talk at all.
This allows you to give the world some flavor. It reminds the protagonist and the reader that they aren’t the center of the universe. But all the same, the protagonist should interact with the world. Don’t remove them from the rest of the world because they are the protagonist and have better things to do. They are a part of that world. If their goal is to save it, then they’re fighting for it, so they should be living in it.
Impact on the Protagonist
I saved this point for later because I said above how it shouldn’t all revolve around the protagonist. However, the protagonist is undoubtedly important and since they’re involved at all, the secondary characters, no matter who they are need to have an impact on them.
Maybe the protagonist meets someone briefly, has some kind of relationship with them (good or bad), but disappears or dies without any explanation. Maybe they meet a mysterious stranger, have a tryst, and never see each other again. These encounters should make your character feel something. They shouldn’t obsess over it, but seeing how the protagonist reacts to these things characterizes them.
The protagonist can think of themselves as pretty smart. Maybe they speak several languages, have studied their entire lives, etc. But then they meet someone, maybe in passing who is smarter than them. How do they react? How do they feel about it?
Make them feel things. Use other people to make them feel things.
Killing Them Off
Very rarely do main characters/POV characters die (at least permanently) which means that many side characters are doomed.
I did a post about character death, why it’s there, and how it’s useful. It’s 100% okay to kill characters, the goal is to not make it obvious to the reader they’re going to die and to give them an emotional impact.
Make yourself care about a doomed character. Make other characters care about a doomed character. Don’t make it too obvious that they are doomed. Drop hints maybe, but otherwise don’t throw them in there just to die. It’s too obvious and it often feels like there was no point in having that character there to begin with.
Instead, have the characters spend time with each other. Bond them to the protagonist in some way (even if it’s not a good relationship), have them make plans for the future (some goal) and then kill them. Make it raw. No suicide note that provides closure. Make it be preventable but happen anyway.
The final step is that it needs to have an impact on the protagonist/the other characters. Did they die because the protagonist chose to go somewhere they maybe shouldn’t have? Did the protagonist trust the wrong person? Did the killed character make a choice that ultimately led to their downfall?
How do the other characters go on? Everyone processes grief differently and it will depend on the relationships they have with one another and their backgrounds. Maybe one loses their appetite and fall into a deep depression. Another bluntly tells everyone to suck it up and move on. Another tries to make jokes and cheer people up. What do they do in the future to avoid danger?
Secondary characters are vital to so much work, so let them shine. Make them authentic and breathe life into them. There’s so much to explore and create with them so play with it. Happy writing!