On Writing Secondary Characters

bookfriendsDeveloping a cast of memorable characters isn’t easy. Writers are told to develop their main character well with motivation, internal and external conflict–but sometimes don’t put the same emphasis on secondary characters because they’re too worried about their MC.

It’s easy to manipulate secondary characters and sub plots to support your story, but they have to be much more than leading the reader. We can tell when a writer is using secondary characters to prove a point. So why not build a varied cast of secondary characters that feel like they also exist in real life–like your MC.

How to write secondary characters in your subplots:

  • They should feel like they have a life of their own and are just popping into this story for a minute. Your secondary characters’ lives shouldn’t revolve around the main character’s. They should feel like they live on after the book is done.
  • They should have their own motivations. How are they involved in the story other than being a friend? Think about them as being bigger than a convenient tool. They should feel organic and authentic, not a puppet of the writer and the message.
  • They should contribute to the external conflict, not just be there for quiet talks over coffee. The best secondary characters aren’t merely a sounding board or a place to use dialogue when you’re tired of exposition. The best secondary characters are part of the main plot or theme, too.
  • They should compare and/or contrast to your main character’s quirks and struggles. Similar characters mute stories and make them forgettable. Secondary characters and their subplots should be unique and show differences and/or similarities. Use them subtly and organically, and it will help you prove your point without hitting us over the head.


Writing secondary characters should take as much time as your main character. Make them larger than life. Write their characters sketches.

Exercise: Know all of these questions about them too.

Q: How do you make sure your secondary characters are memorable?


Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

21 thoughts on “On Writing Secondary Characters

  1. I try to keep in mind that any character could be the “main” character. I try to imagine what the book would be like if I focused on that one instead of this one. If I can’t imagine a whole novel told from the POV of a particular character, then I need to either strengthen or remove that person.


  2. Excellent tips. Easy to let some of those secondary characters slide by–especially in rewrites. In fact, I keep a spreadsheet on all of the characters and note when they are introduced so when my publisher says I need to cut words or something horrible like that, I don’t cut something that leaves a secondary character “hanging in midair” so to speak.


  3. I try to give my secondary characters a little something something like a quirky habit or hobby or obsession.


  4. Great reminder. I write bios for all main and secondary characters. Not everything gets into the book, but they (hopefully) do more than serve as scenery and a sounding board. Some secondary characters have gone on to become main characters because they were so interesting. Messing up my plot!

    Liked by 1 person

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