Writing a better novel: Keeping track of your secondary characters

Most writers do a good job keeping track of the protagonist, the love interest and the villain. Secondary characters—not so much. As a novel unfolds, it is not uncommon to find that secondary characters disappear to only reappear when it is convenient for the writer. These sporadic appearances not only feel unnatural and forced, they can potentially destroy the plausibility of the story.

people characters

It might be tempting to save time and energy on developing the plot lines of secondary characters, particularly if you have an impending deadline. However, secondary characters can make or break a book, they contribute to the believability of your story and most importantly they provide your hero with interpersonal conflict.

In order to have strong secondary characters, start by creating character sheets. Your secondary characters should have goals, fears, and unique characteristics, even if they won’t be fleshed out quite as much as with the protagonist and the reader won’t get to see all the reasoning behind their actions.

After you’ve done this, create an excel spreadsheet to track what chapters each of your secondary characters shows up in. You want to avoid introducing secondary characters in the beginning that mysteriously disappear in the middle or end of your novel, making your reader wonder why he bothered investing time into the character. You also want to avoid introducing a critical player in the last quarter of the book. If you must, you should at least heavily foreshadow the newcomer in the first three quarters (e.g.: through letter exchanges or flashbacks, if no direct interaction with the protagonist is possible).

The spreadsheet should also help you to cut down on unnecessary characters or merge them (e.g.: the sister could also be the employer of your protagonist). Too many characters might confuse your reader as well as divide empathy too much.

Additionally, the spreadsheet will help you identify whether your subplots revolving around other characters are well developed. Each subplot should reach a conclusion at the end of your novel to provide closure for your reader.

Finally, the spreadsheet will help you notice whether the goals of secondary characters are clear. Just like in real life, each person has their own motivations and goals. In novels, these goals often either coincide with the ones of the protagonist (making the two allies) or are the opposite (making them enemies).

To summarize, secondary characters can contribute or detract from a novel, they provide the protagonist with conflict and help to move the plot forward. Character sheets for every secondary character are essential to ensure they are well developed and their actions justified. To ensure that the characters don’t appear “convenient”, it is a good idea to create a chapter-by-chapter spreadsheet and keep track of how often and when each character shows up. This way it will be easier for the writer to gauge whether the subplots are well-rounded and not lose track of the goals of each character.


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