I don't like my secondary characters

therapist

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I'm about a little over halfway through my current WiP (my 2nd book (unrelated to 1st)). I like my story, world, and main character (single PoV), but my secondary characters are feeling weak. Instead of growing into complex interesting characters, I feel like they are regressing more towards shallow 2D charicatures.

I'm not sure if I should just keep writting as is, and then fix it once I have the completed first draft, and can see more clearly what roles these characters play in the story.
Or if I should just fix it now, go back and do a complete overhaul of these characters, give them all more detailed outlines, motivations, and character arcs, and finish my book on a much stronger foundation.
Or maybe there is some middle path?

I have a rough outline, but that is mainly for my main character. Also instead of writing a quick first draft, I tend to write slower and produce a more polished first draft.

Any advice greatly appreciated. Including any advice you might have about how to make secondary (non PoV) characters more interesting.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Everybody has their own writing process, of course, but I have always allowed my characters, especially the secondary ones, to develop without trying to force it, and so far they have always done so ... that is, when they don't decide they'd rather be primary characters instead, and take a larger role in the story.
 

HareBrain

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I find my secondary characters become more interesting because of what happens to them, and how they react/adapt to that (like the main ones, I guess). If not enough is happening to make them more interesting, that might be a plotting problem. Even if you gave them an interesting set of starting conditions, that wouldn't be enough IMO to sustain them through the story,.
 

therapist

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If not enough is happening to make them more interesting, that might be a plotting problem. Even if you gave them an interesting set of starting conditions, that wouldn't be enough IMO to sustain them through the story,.
That rings very true. I can see that the world of my secondary characters has remained relatively stable, while a lot has been happening to my main character (mainly entering and learning the secondary character's world).
 

HareBrain

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That rings very true. I can see that the world of my secondary characters has remained relatively stable, while a lot has been happening to my main character (mainly entering and learning the secondary character's world).
Is there any way the main character can change the secondary characters' world, rather than just learn it, even in a small way? Or ideally in what seems a small way but then becomes quite significant, because of the personalities involved?
 

Toby Frost

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I agree with Brian. Personally, I tend to find that my secondary characters are more grotesque than the main ones, which can be more entertaining, but weirder.

I find it hard to work out what's wrong from the OP. I wonder if the characters are stuck doing one thing - not just literally doing it, but not thinking or talking about anything else - but I can't really tell. I would try to make a full draft before doing any serious editing, though.
 

Swank

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I would also suggest finishing the 1st draft.

And then consider whether your secondary characters need more or a lot less. You aren't required to make all your characters complex. Sometimes they are better as window dressing and plot pivots, and that's okay. Maybe pick one to flesh out more and edit down the rest.
 

THX1138

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In my WIP, I have a chapter dedicated to a secondary character because he is the only one who can do the task at hand. But the outcome is a traumatic event for the MC through no fault of the secondary at all.
I have this planed out in my notes because I needed a way to lead up to this event that also will change the secondary character lineup.
 

paranoid marvin

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Sam was pretty much a 2D character until then end of Fellowship; so were Pippin and Merry. Once they start to have more prominence, their characters flesh out and become much more developed and interesting. Funnily enough, I think that as the companions evolve, the main character of Frodo seems to regress and become less interesting.

Are you giving your secondary characters enough to do in your story?
 

therapist

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Thanks for the advice everyone. I was leaning more towards rewriting a bunch of characters, but after reading your responses, I will stick it out and finish my first draft as is.

Can you try writing a few sections as if it were their story rather than the main characters?
I can see how this will be a very powerful exercise, and pretty much force life into these characters.
Are you giving your secondary characters enough to do in your story?
I don't think I was, and that made the 2ndary characters feel 2D. I noticed whenever my MC needed to interact with someone, they were always just conveniently waiting around for my hero like an NPC. I think giving everyone some sort of goal or mission, even if it only happens off screen, will give them more reality.

You aren't required to make all your characters complex. Sometimes they are better as window dressing and plot pivots, and that's okay. Maybe pick one to flesh out more and edit down the rest.
I think this is great advice too. I asked everyone in my writing group which characters weren't working for them, and their answers surprised me. I thought they would flag my most simple character—the one-trick-pony—but that was not the case.
Sam was pretty much a 2D character until then end of Fellowship; so were Pippin and Merry.
This brings up a good point aswell. I often really enjoy when a character I didn't think of much suddenly becomes more pronounced and reveals a depth I never knew they had.
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
It’s *really* important that characters, even pretty minor ones, have a character arc that matters to them. Giving them a background, family, things they are interested in and care about can really work. But they will never ever come alive if their entire purpose in the story is to support the mc‘s arc.
seeing the new comment from you i would do a quick character sheet for each. Who are they, what do they want in their life, what are their hopes and dreams and fears. Others might add colour of hair and that sort of thing, too. Any little habits of bits of geekery they’re into? Any special talents?
From there, I’d try to incorporate those quirks into the story.

many moons ago, I had the idea for a secondary character, a smartass younger brother to another secondary character, there to provide some family background to her story and someone for her to vibe off. And then he kind of had a laconic way of speaking and he was very able to catch nuances and he became an excellent point of view contrast to the rather more seriously minded main character. And so he grew to be the main character‘s second in command to and bring the story more to life. And then he became a character with his own distinct character arc closely entwined to the main story. And then he ended up the most popular character in the trilogy.
but the key is how to do that and it’s by that old analogy that every line, chapter and, in this case, character has a purpose in moving the story and plot on. They should never be there just to tell a single thing, or do a single thing. If they are in a scene what else could they be doing that will extend your story and universe? Could one of them be a ranger, with knowledge of the world beyond? Could one of them be the Cook and their Knowledge of ingredients be key to some scenes? Etc etc. But giving them a role can be another good way of expanding things
 

jd73

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I've had this, and have dealt with it in a number of ways. One was quite strong in my eyes but when beta readers got a hold of him they found him too weak, prone to tears at the drop of a hat, and so forth, and in general not shaped the way I wanted. So I identified those areas and instead of having him bring forth emotional floods, I instead had him resort to mild acts of violence - breaking stuff, punching walls etc., which seemed to build him out in readers' eyes and also made him more himself in mine. So you might have a look at your weak characters and focus on what makes them weak - what they are doing, not doing etc. - and just start to fix them at those points.

Another way I have dealt with it is by having a stronger more developed character kill them for being too shallow. Actually in my case, the characters were too similar and as such they kind of undermined each other. So one killed the other and took on his identity. I was pretty desperate at that point! :)

If you find yourself feeling negative towards a character for this reason, such that you actually feel less motivated to build them up you could try telling yourself that you simply don't know them yet, that they might have some other aspect to them. So spend time with them - thinking about them, writing them. I find that this then brings forth some quirks and eccentricities. I still might not like them as much as the MCs, but at least they then have a little more depth to them, and places to go within their arc.
 

Toby Frost

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It might be the case that you've got too many secondary characters, and that merging a couple of them would simplify things and might make those that remain seem more complex and less like quest-givers. I agree that it's got to seem as if they've got lives outside the main characters: unusual quirks and interests can help. Not just going along with the lead might work as well: if they disagree in some way, or sit some bits out, that gives the impression that they're making their own decisions.
 

Swank

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It’s *really* important that characters, even pretty minor ones, have a character arc that matters to them. Giving them a background, family, things they are interested in and care about can really work. But they will never ever come alive if their entire purpose in the story is to support the mc‘s arc.
seeing the new comment from you i would do a quick character sheet for each. Who are they, what do they want in their life, what are their hopes and dreams and fears. Others might add colour of hair and that sort of thing, too. Any little habits of bits of geekery they’re into? Any special talents?
From there, I’d try to incorporate those quirks into the story.
The protagonist shares a train compartment with another traveler for an hour. Noting the protagonist's unusual luggage, the minor character starts a conversation and ultimately makes a revelatory comment to the protagonist that changes their perspective on the quest. The traveler gets off at the next stop, leaving the protagonist to ponder.

Does this minor character need a character arc? What is accomplished by dedicating time and energy to a back story that will not play a role in that character being curious and perceptive enough to have an impact on the protagonist and plot?



I sometimes feel that discussions about character building end up similar to discussions about world building - the writer doesn't necessarily need to know the history and engineering of the turbo-lift to have a turbo-lift take the protagonist to deck eight. A story can be entirely 'character driven' with only one character, like Old Man and the Sea, so why can't some of the characters be little more than what they do in scene?
 

Toby Frost

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I wouldn't call that that guy on the train as a secondary character: I'd see secondary characters as sidekicks like Hastings in the Poirot books or important people who don't drive directly the plot, like Theoden. I think someone like that would be either very simply sketched - almost a stereotype - or a sort of mysterious, mystic figure who you deliberately wouldn't flesh out.
 

Swank

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I wouldn't call that that guy on the train as a secondary character: I'd see secondary characters as sidekicks like Hastings in the Poirot books or important people who don't drive directly the plot, like Theoden. I think someone like that would be either very simply sketched - almost a stereotype - or a sort of mysterious, mystic figure who you deliberately wouldn't flesh out.
I would tend to agree, which is why I asked Jo about the "pretty minor characters" she mentioned.
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
The protagonist shares a train compartment with another traveler for an hour. Noting the protagonist's unusual luggage, the minor character starts a conversation and ultimately makes a revelatory comment to the protagonist that changes their perspective on the quest. The traveler gets off at the next stop, leaving the protagonist to ponder.

Does this minor character need a character arc? What is accomplished by dedicating time and energy to a back story that will not play a role in that character being curious and perceptive enough to have an impact on the protagonist and plot?
no, because for me that minor character isn't actually a secondary character in the book but a plot point. They're there to cause a change in the main character's arc not for any other reason. They still need to feel real but they don't need an arc if that's as far as they go. I see secondary characters as those that are in the book in a relatively substantive way, not as a redshirt to run into danger or a plot device to deliver a single piece of information or change one thing in the protagonist's journey. So I suppose the nuance lies with what we define as a secondary character.

Where I would feel there is a need to develop things further is if something was dropped into that scene, that felt important, and was just left hanging.
 
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therapist

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seeing the new comment from you i would do a quick character sheet for each.
Thanks, i'm definitely going to do this. Ideally I would've done this earlier. Instead I just gave each character a brief list of traits and beliefs and hoped they would grow into a full character (i'm sure that works for some people).

But this brings me back to my original question: If I redefine my characters and give them all arcs, given I am already 50-60% of the way through my book, how should I incorporate this? Would you suggest I keep writing the characters as is, then do all this once i've finished the book? Or do this now and go back and write in the beginnings of their arc in earlier chapters?
 

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