Secondary and Tertiary Characters

ByToni McGee Causey

If we think about a visual representation of what our secondary and tertiary characters would look like in a physical representation of their uses and benefits in a story, it might look something like this:

This is the interior structure of a bridge, and every one of those supports is necessary:

But if you look closely at those supports, they work by being at cross angles—cross purposes. They are not all the same—some are even curving in the background in ways that seems counterintuitive to supporting the whole. Each one of these supports has more than one face: the solid side portion, the face with the sun hitting it. Darker, lighter, bent, straight, rusted in spots, repainted in others.

The main characters—and important secondary characters—form the foundation of the story:

Doesn’t this (admittedly craptastic snapshot) strike you as a three-act story? It has entrances and exits, it suspends disbelief by suspending us over water, allowing us to travel from here to there. But without the world of those minor characters holding the framework together, the whole thing wouldn’t work.

But this is, perhaps, where the metaphor breaks down most for a lot of writers. It’s a little too simple to think of story structure like a bridge and the minor characters as support of that story because we’re then thinking of those characters purely as a matter of how they must function within the story to make the final outcome work. Writers have a tendency to work exceptionally hard on the main characters and then slot in the minor characters, utilizing (whether consciously or unconsciously) archetypes: the underdog, the nerdy sidekick, the tough guy sidekick, the “girl,” the mentor, etc.

If you look at that first image, it’s black and white, all sharp contrasts, but each support is essentially interchangeable with the next one. There is no flavor there, no color, no uniqueness, and therefore, for as many supporting players as there are here, there is not a single one of them memorable. And if your main characters are supporting a world and a story full of unmemorable characters, then the conflict and the sense of being immersed in a fascinating world will be lost.

We can use cooking—or music as metaphors. Change an ingredient in a recipe and the outcome generally changes. Change the amount, even, and you’ll end up with an entirely different flavor. Same thing with music—add in that odd woodwind instrument that I always hear in Celtic music but never quite identify and you’ll have a vastly different effect than a trumpet.

So how do you go about creating memorable secondary and tertiary characters?

I’ve heard the old adage that each character is starring in his or her own story, and that’s true, and it’s useful to remember. They have their own goals and their own needs. But for the purposes of a novel, you cannot always show what they think their own story is in that moment that they have on stage, so that sort of advice can sound great but end up not all that practical to apply.

So what can we show?

1. Personality.

This isn’t just a “trait” or a schtick. It drives me a little bit bonkers to read a story where the tertiary characters are reduced to one or two personal “ticks” – like a character (and I am picking a notion randomly and hoping no one has done this)… twitching. Or substitute any single physical habit like talking with a lisp or limping or smoking or blinking rapidly or speaking with a husky voice. These are all fine starting points, but there has to be more or the character is going to be one-dimensional.

I have a character in book one (Charmed and Dangerous) who is a minor character nicknamed “The Mountain.” He’s a rather large guy, a simple fellow who is eager to please the smarter henchman, Eddie, who is his friend. He wants to impress Eddie and the world, and he explains to Bobbie Faye’s brother, Roy, that he wants to one day be in the Guinness Book of World Records. To do this, he has been collecting doorknobs. Roy doesn’t quite realize the significance of this until The Mountain gleefully explains that he has one for every person he’s killed, and he wants to call Guinness, but Eddie won’t let him. At this point of the explanation, Roy is tied up and in serious doubt that he’s going to make it out of there and he’s too afraid to ask if The Mountain has taken a doorknob from his home.

2. Style

Style is a close associate to personality, but not wholly so, because it’s a presentation by the character of themselves to the world. How they want to be perceived. Or maybe, the lack of thought into how they are perceived. Do they dress well? Poorly? Like a hooker? A pimp?

But we can’t stop there—that’s just surface. How does their style affect their perceived choices in life? Do they think of themselves in a negative way? Positive? For example, a hooker who thinks this is the best she can do and it’s a good gig and it’s feeding her kids and/or her mom will strut that clothing style in a different way than the woman who used to be a corporate executive, who’s loss of a job two years ago and her home and everything thing else she had and now this is the only thing she can do to feed her kids. Is there a conflict in how they present themselves vs. how they wish they could present themselves? Is there any irony?

How do they speak? Everyone should not use the same level of grammar, the same sentence structure.

Style is the soul sister to Attitude.

3.Goals / Conflict

Every single tertiary character needs to have some conflict with the main characters at some point. Every. Single. One. Even the ones who like the main characters, who agree with them on major points. They may agree, for example, on the overall goal, but not the strategy for getting there. They may agree on the strategy for some things and not others. They should have their own goals that are at some sort of cross-purpose with the main characters. These cross-purposes do not have to be big moments, big turning points, but they add dimension to a story.

An example I love is from the movie Witness. Harrison Ford is a cop from New York trying to solve a murder by getting a better idea from the witness: a young Amish boy. He finds himself attracted to the boy’s mother, Rachel, in spite of their many differences. Quietly vying for Rachel’s affections is the Peter Godunov character, who has one distinct advantage over Ford—but it’s also his disadvantage: he’s Amish. He was a good friend to Rachel’s (dead) husband, and he wants her. He is attractive to Rachel, but not as fresh and fascinating as Ford’s New York cop, who represents an entire forbidden world just outside Rachel’s grasp. I don’t remember all of the details, but while the Godunov’s character is helpful in many ways to Rachel and her family, he is clearly annoyed with Ford’s continued presence, though he is extremely polite. He is the epitome of what a strong Amish man is—and there are a wonderful couple of scenes of a barn building where the two men try to out-work one another. Rachel, at a late point in the story, has chosen Ford and tries to seduce him, and Ford makes himself turn away. He makes the decision for them both, because he knows it would never work—he couldn’t live in her world, she couldn’t live in his. As Ford drives away, the Godunov character is purposefully walking up the lane to go court Rachel.

That film is 24 years old and I have not re-watched it in more than 20 years, and I can still remember that character.

Now… whether TV or film or books, name a few secondary / tertiary characters that you just remember off the top of your head, without looking them up. Why are they memorable?


And don’t forget, coming from a woman who has a ton of memorable characters—main and secondary (!!) – our ownAllison Brennan’snewest book,CUTTING EDGE, hits the stores on TUESDAY, July 28th!

When security specialist Duke Rogan’s state-of-the-art computer system fails at a controversial bio-tech firm, a raging inferno spreads, and a grotesquely charred body is discovered in the aftermath. With an extremist anti-technology group claiming responsibility, the case grows even more complex when the victim’s autopsy unexpectedly reveals that he bled to death. Heading the FBI’s domestic terrorism unit, Agent Nora English is fiercely determined to track and stop a sadistic assassin.



18 thoughts on “Secondary and Tertiary Characters

  1. Karen in Ohio

    The quintessential secondary and tertiary characters that spring to mind are all from Gone with the Wind, both book and movie: Ashley Wilkes, Melanie, Suellen, Prissy, Belle Watling. The story would not be the same without any of them.

    What a great blog, Toni. You’ve opened a new avenue of thought about character for me.

  2. Allison Brennan

    I love your visual illustrations! I’d never thought of secondary characters like a bridge, but it’s a great analogy. JD Robb does secondary characters extremely well. Toni has fantastic secondary characters (CeCe! She’s unforgettable.)

    Thanks for the shout out on the book . . . right back at you next week!

  3. JD Rhoades

    Excellent post, Toni.

    The secondary character that sprung first to mind when I read your question was Robert Crais’ Joe Pike. He starts off as the "tough sidekick," but quickly becomes such a strong character that he gets his own book (two if you count the amazing LA REQUIEM, in which he’s a central character). He’s so strong, in fact, that I hesitated to even call him a "secondary" character.

    The key, I think, is his backstory. I like to imagine a backstory for even the most minor characters. Where is this person from? What road led him to this crossroads where he intersects with the story? It helps me write them.

  4. Louise Ure

    What a primer on character development, Toni!

    The first that come to mind are the black sisters in Sue Monk Kidd’s "The Secret Life of Bees." Of course, August was a primary character, but her sisters May (with the weight of the world’s sadness as heavy on her as an anvil) and June (a budding NAACP member registering to vote for the first time) were as full-throated as their elder sister.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, Louise,
    I’m reading The Secret Life with my younger daughter right now and it’s just wonderful! You’re so right about the two other sisters.

    What would Pride and Prejudice be without the gawd-awful Mrs. Bennett or her husband, what about those other minor sisters?

    What would Spenser be without Susan (okay, okay, . . . I know most of us would be much happier)? Or Hawk?

    What would any of the Star Trek episodes be without the fifth person on the away team? <g>

  6. Pammy D

    I too love Joe Pike!

    Good post, Toni.

    Although I do find it a little odd that you and I blogged about elements of the movie Witness, on the same day.

  7. Catherine Shipton

    I agree Joe Pike is a stand out secondary character. I’m on an update list which has given me a heads up that Robert Crais has another Joe Pike book coming out in February 2010, called ‘The First Rule.’

    I agree with JD that as a character, even before he featured in his own books, Joe Pike has just solidly been there.

    Strangely the other book character that springs immediately to mind as a secondary character is Amy from Little Women. Possibly because she always sort of annoyed me, but then so did Jo for different reasons…but I still read and re-read these books growing up.

  8. Jake Nantz

    It’s hard to do much better than Pike. He’s the greatest.

    Still, you can look at Barry Eisler’s Dox and Delilah. Jim Butcher’s Bob (the spirit in the skull in Harry Dresden’s subbasement). Deaver’s Lon Selitto. I always loved Oy, the bumbler from King’s Dark Tower series. I knid of liked Ghost in the 2nd Matrix movie. Chewie from the first Star Wars Trilogy. And of course, where would any Batman, comic film or otherwise, be without Alfred?

    But yeah, Pike’s gotta be the top dog.

  9. Rob Gregory Browne

    Great post, Toni.

    The character that immediately jumps to mind for me is the Tom Arnold character in True Lies. He served as Arnold’s right hand, but also provided running commentary throughout the movie that brought a lot of humor to the story.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Hi everyone–I had not realized I was going to be gone all day. Ended up babysitting the kid (granddaughter). Much laughter and random games ensued.

    Karen, wow, what a perfect classic example. And you’re right, every single one of those characters are so memorable! Thank you–I’m happy if the blog was of any help.

    Allison, thank you. I think Ce Ce is my favorite secondary character. I could write an entire book just for Ce Ce. And agreed on JD Robb’s secondary characters–very memorable.

    Dusty: Pike is probably my top choice, too. I almost included him in the blog, in fact, but I haven’t read his book yet (I know, I know, I am the last person on earth).

    Louise, I have The Secret Life of Bees on my TBR pile. Probably will be a while before I get to it, but I keep eying it with longing.

    Pari! LOL on the Star Trek red shirt / fifth person on the away team. Which is why I completely and totally heart, beyond all that is fashionable or reasonable, <I>GALAXY QUEST. It is one of my favorite comedies.

    Pammy, that is freaky. I hadn’t read your blog yet! Hive mind, I tell ya. I hadn’t even thought of that film in years.

    Catherine, ooooh, great examples–the sisters from Little Women. It is amazing how they imprinted so completely on my very young mind.

    Jake, excellent suggestions all. There are so many great secondary characters in the first two Matrix films. (We ignore film #3. It did not happen. It certainly did not happen the way the filmmakers filmed it. I refuse to acknowledge it. I don’t care if they created the universe, they ruined it with the stupid and incorrect logic and philosophy of that last film-that-does-not-exist.) Not that I feel strongly about that or anything.

    Rob — such a perfect example. That role made that film work.

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