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Gail_5Welcome to the CAN blog and some information about writing fiction from Gail Gaymer Martin at www.gailgaymermartin.com

Most writers learn how to create believeable main characters who are usual the man or woman bringing the story to life through their perceptions, emotions and actions, but learning how to use secondary characters is a different process altogether.

Numerous characters appear in your novels for realism and to provide a piece of action necessary to move the story forward or to broaden characterization of a main character. These walk-on characters might be referred to as the waiter, clerk, cab driver, mail carrier, baby sitter, maid, doorman, neighbor, a crowd or mob.

They have limited time in the story and so when using them remember to:

  1. Be specific only when necessary. If the person reappears for a key purpose use brief descriptions only, describe a feature that defines the character or the role he will play.
  2. Use an eccentricity only if the character needs to be remembered, perhaps as a witness to a crime.
  3. Use a name only when it points to a character’s ethnicity or physical characteristic: curly, Baldy, Bambi, Blimp, Shiny, Chan, Vito, or Gomez which will help the reader picture him.

Walk-ons serve a purpose to bring reality to the novel. A restaurant needs a waiter. A store needs a clerk, A taxi needs a driver. But these characters can also add an element of suspense when they seem nervous or edgy or they can bring comic relief to the novel. Think of the movie When Harry Met Sally and the restaurant scene when woman said to the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.” This line accentuated the humor of the scene.

Secondary characters are different from walk-ons. They have a greater role in the novel, such as a relative, neighbor, or co-worker, and provide contrast, new information, or conflict to the story. They will appear in occasional scenes and add reality as well. Most people have a confidant that they discuss personal issues in their lives or coworkers who join them for lunch. These characters have names—Grandma, Ethel, Uncle Joe, Bill.  Some description and personality traits are provided to make these characters three-dimensional. Their traits often moves the story along—the wisdom provider, the commonsense giver, the time-user, the empathy shower, or the one who is the “life’s not perfect” reminder.

Secondary characters can:

Serve as a contrast to the main character.

Provide key information that helps move the story forward

Provide backstory moments

Assist the main character in brainstorming solutions to conflicts

Create conflicts or undermine characters progress

Serve as a red-herring in suspense or thriller

Provide a backdrop for the main character to express concerns or choices

Both walk-ons and secondary characters are important to a novel just as various people enter our lives to provide a service, cause change or create an outlet for ideas and solutions. Use them wisely. Don’t give a walk-on too much importance or you will confuse the reader and don’t neglect bringing the secondary character to life to the degree they are significant to the story.

I’d love to hear your ideas and additions to this list. Please leave a comment.

 

 

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One Thought on “Walk-On and Secondary Characters

  1. Thank you for your post, Gail. You’ve made an important distinction between walk-on and secondary characters. I think sometimes writers get them confused. I especially appreciated your point that secondary characters can serve as a contrast to primary characters. Funny, but I immediately thought of Cinderella and her wicked step-sisters. 🙂 What a contrast!
    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your expertise with us.
    Blessings,
    MaryAnn
    ___________________________
    MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA
    A CHRISTMAS HOMECOMING
    Harbourlight Books, 2012

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