Posted by: Katie B | March 22, 2012

Secondary Characters: The Big Reveal by Coe Booth

Secondary characters.  Our novels all have them.  We throw them in for various reasons.  But until I heard Coe Booth give a speech on “The Secondary Character Assessment” at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) writing retreat, I never gave them enough consideration.  It’s my main character, her struggle and arch that drives my book, right?  Wrong.  A secondary character can make or break your novel.  They are what affects your main character, shaping your book,  transforming it from a one-dimensional story into a rich tale.  Too often, we don’t give the secondary character enough credit, and they become a stereotype.

Assuming in a children’s book that secondary characters are most often the siblings or parents, her point:  Families are systems with roles and rules.  They don’t change unless something forces them.  Leaving a secondary character underdeveloped is a lost opportunity for your story.  They are most often the catalyst for change.

Think I’m being a little dramatic?  Ask yourself the following questions about your secondary characters.  Get to know them better.  See how these answers would lead you to edit elements of your current piece.  I guarantee you’re going to make changes.  And you’ll have the same, oh…right, moment I did.

  1. Who are your secondary characters?
  2. What drives them?
  3. What does the home look like of the secondary characters (in most cases, the family itself)?  The neighborhood?  Picture it from the outside, and then what it looks like when you walk inside.
  4. What does your secondary character do for fun?  What’s the worst thing that’s happened to them?  What’s their biggest secret?
  5. What is the best time your secondary character has ever had with the main character?
  6. What is their biggest problem in life until now?
  7. How do the main and secondary characters talk to one another?
  8. What are the rules of the family or the relationship?  What role does each person play?
  9. One little change can upset the balance of the family or relationship – what is it?

Alvina Ling’s tweet / picture of Coe sitting with Holly Black after they gave their speeches: https://twitter.com/#!/planetalvina/status/181422551216570369/photo/1

Happy writing!

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