Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Importance of Secondary Characters in Your Manuscript

by Eva Marie Everson @EvaMarieEverson

It’s not unusual to find me searching my video apps (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.) looking for the “oldies.” Classic television holds a special place in my memories—as a child, I’d rather watch TV and read books than pretty much anything else. I loved everything with a story.
As I’ve watched a few of both the classic and the modern oldies (and this time as a storyteller myself), I’ve noted the secondary, yet critically important, characters. For example:
  • Gladys Kravitz (Bewitched)
  • Roger Healey (I Dream of Jeannie)
  • Barney Fife (The Andy Griffith Show)
  • Dr. Niles Crane (Fraser)
  • Miss Kitty (Gunsmoke)
  • Hop Sing (Bonanza)
  • Dr. Steven Kiley (Marcus Welby, M.D.)

But what made these secondary characters so important to the story?
Poor Mrs. Kravitz kept seeing the magic, but could never convince her husband Abner that “something strange is going on in the house across the street.” These scenes offered a lot of laughter to the viewers. Roger knew Jeannie was a genie, which helped Tony out from time to time, but he also looked for a way to profit from Jeannie’s genie-ness, which added both conflict and humor.

Barney … well, who doesn’t know about Nip-it-in-the-Bud Barney? He is the perfect opposite/sidekick to Sheriff Taylor’s calm wisdom in both life and law enforcement.

And the list goes on … Niles’ unrequited love for Daphne keeps viewers tuned in for several seasons, Miss Kitty provides … well … friendship (and often a word of wisdom) to Matt Dillion. Hop Sing kept the Ponderosa clean (and made us smile), and Dr. Steven Kiley made younger female viewers swoon even as he served as the straight-laced “do it by the books” doctor to Dr. Welby’s unorthodox style.

All stories have their primary characters—the protagonist, the antagonist, etc. But they also need secondary characters (who help move the story, provide alliance, or are good for a laugh or two), as well as tertiary characters (who appear only in a scene or two, but have a specific purpose).

You could tell your story without the secondary and tertiary characters, but your story would lack luster and polish. The difference is that while tertiary characters don’t need to be fleshed out entirely, your secondary characters do. They say to the reader that you, the author, care about your story. That you’ve thought it through.

In my book The One True Love of Alice-Ann, I gave the main character two best friends. Why? Because 1) every young girl has a best friend or two; 2) I needed what Alice-Ann (who sees herself as plain) perceived to be the most beautiful, two friends to compare herself to (thus adding to her lower self-image); 3) while both friends are Alice-Ann’s secret-keepers, one of them will lead Alice-Ann to her one true love.

I did the same for Carlton. He had two best friends as well: Nelson (Alice-Ann’s brother) and Mack (the man Alice-Ann has always believed to be her one true love).

There were other secondary characters as well whose roles were equally as vital—her brother Nelson and his wife Irene, and Aunt Bess and Papa, all who provide wisdom to Alice-Ann when she needs it most.

Remember, as you create your secondary and tertiary characters, that these are the folks who will come to mean a lot to your protagonist in their journey (your story) and in how they overcome the antagonist. Look at each one carefully. Ask: what role does this character play to the main character? How will this secondary character help the protagonist win against the “bad guy”?

Give them all the love and attention as you do your main characters. Without them, you’ll have one dull, short story. 

The importance of secondary characters in your manuscript - @EvaMarieEverson (Click to Tweet)

Give your secondary characters as much love and attention as your main characters - @EvaMarieEverson (Click to Tweet)

Best-selling, award-winning author Eva Marie Everson is the president of Word Weavers International, the director of Florida Christian Writers Conference, and the contest director for Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Her latest novel, The One True Love of Alice-Ann (Tyndale), releases April 1, 2017.


  1. I agree that stories are dull without strong secondary characters. An added benefit is the way they often spawn a new plot while you're writing and become a primary character in the next novel. Series are born that way.

  2. Without secondary characters, a novel feels incomplete. Thank you, Eva Marie, for reminding us of the unsung heroes of every story.

  3. Wonderful post! So many examples come to mind. Pinned & shared.