The Importance of Secondary Characters

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And now, back to our program: Like all authors, my head is filled with the words, actions and feelings of my protagonist. But a good story requires more than one character (unless you’re Jack London) to round out plot development, character motivation, story arc, and all the other ingredients that go into a recipe for a good book.

I’ve been thinking about my secondary characters lately—especially those incidental characters who show up in a scene and then disappear. Why are they there? What function have they served?


The waitress in The Cavanaugh House:

THC-BookCoverPreview-2The waitress shows up very briefly in the midst of Susan’s gradual revelation of Jesse’s true family history.

Jesse had listened carefully, but was growing impatient for Susan to get to the point. When the waitress brought their sandwiches and iced tea, the girl struck up a conversation with Susan asking about Joe and his construction business. It was quite evident she was more interested in Joe and any inquiry about the business was polite window dressing. They chatted and she finally asked if they needed anything else.

I need you to go away. Jesse wasn’t sure if her impatience was simply so Susan could continue the story or because of the girl’s obvious interest in Joe. She shrugged off the latter.

waitressJesse is fighting her attraction to Joe (Susan’s son) because recently she had been burned in a previous relationship and is cynical about love. She is dedicated to the current Woman’s Movement, which is popular during this time (1968). The waitress is quite enamored with Joe, and that causes Jesse to feel jealous but deny her growing love for him. Instead of explaining Jesse’s inner turmoil about her feelings for Joe in exposition, the waitress, an incidental character who never returns to the stage, allows an opportunity to show this.


The intern in The Cavanaugh House:

When Jesse visits Grayson State Hospital to interview a patient, possibly a witness, about the murder she is investigating, an intern is assigned to accompany her. He is a young, cocky man who tries to impress her with his knowledge of the case and this patient’s mental health issues. Because of the time period, the institution is filled with desperate people crying out for help, scaring the heck out of Jesse, but ignored by the intern. The juxtaposition of Jesse’s terror and the intern’s nonchalance sets the scene for her encounter with the patient she seeks to interview. Even the intern is shaken by the man’s reaction.

The door swung open and the intern led her into an austere bedroom furnished with a metal bed, a washbasin, toilet, chair and table. Walter George sat on his bed staring out the window as her escort had predicted.

“Mr. George, you have a visitor,” he boomed as if the man were deaf.

Walter George slowly turned his head in their direction. When he caught sight of her, his face contorted with fear and he screamed.

“No, no, no! I didn’t do it! I swear I didn’t do it! He made me. He forced me. Leave me alone! Stop coming to my dreams! Leave me alone!”

His voice was shrill, a cornered animal facing certain death. He scrambled up the bed to the corner farthest from where she stood, his legs and feet kicking at the bedclothes as if trying to back away farther, eyes wide with terror, mouth twisted with screams.

The intern was shocked by the man’s reaction and for a moment stood agape. Regaining his senses, he pulled Jesse into the hall and locked the door behind them. Nearby residents who heard Walter’s cries joined in shrieking, sobbing, and calling in a symphony of terror. Walter’s screams continued, his voice rasping from strain. Jesse’s escort looked at her with a mix of fear and confusion.

“That is quite remarkable. Nothing in all of his years of treatment has caused such a violent reaction in Mr. George.”

She leaned against the opposite wall pressing her forehead into the dull green paint. Her breath came in short gasps as she fought down panic.

“Can we please leave here?” she whispered.

intern1This scene echoes the barriers Jesse has encountered as she attempts to discover the truth about a murder that happened twenty-eight years before. With facts and justice shoved under the rug—just as this patient has been shut away—things appear to be normal. But as she probes and pushes, unspeakable acts come to light. The intern represents all those who held the secret and put on a false front until the truth could no longer be hidden away.


The barmaid in Love’s Destiny:

9781440550614In this instance, I even gave her a name—Millie. So why did Millie show up? Here’s the excerpt:

“’Scuse me, Captain Brentwood, can I git ya’ another ale?” A plump, pretty girl was smiling down at him. Millie leaned forward to take his empty tankard revealing much of her ample bosom. “Can I git ya’ anything else, Love?” she asked invitingly. Jonathon had been at sea a long time, and normally this invitation might not have been unwelcome. But he had much to think about, and his mind was preoccupied with his new station in life – that of a guardian.

       “Not tonight, Millie,” he replied.

       Disappointed, Millie turned and left the table, swaying her hips provocatively in hopes he would change his mind. Captain Brentwood was the most handsome figure of a man Millie had ever seen. So anxious was she to bed him, she would have willingly given him a toss for free. Most men just in from the sea were chomping at the bit to sample Millie’s favors, but this one seemed preoccupied.

       Jonathon rose and went out into the night. Settling George’s estate and readying the ship for departure were enough to busy a man. But the problem of what to do with Emily taxed his mind the most.

wnchJonathon’s encounter with Millie in a colonial pub shows the reader that he is a virile man experienced with women, and has tremendous sex appeal. After all, Millie was willing to give him a toss for free. He is a foil to Emily’s virginal innocence and this scene follows their first encounter where Emily strives to appear mature and worldly. Now we see him rejecting an opportunity for a sexual encounter because already his mind is full of Emily. The first change in his hero’s journey.



“Show vs. Tell” was a phrase I used constantly when I taught. Incidental secondary characters help me to do just that. Through their interaction with the protagonist, they can serve as a catalyst for feelings, actions, thoughts and words that move the character along in his/her arc.

It’s even more fun to create incidental characters that are quirky, ridiculous and extreme. You can find inspiration for these characters in real life, just sit at the mall for a while and people-watch.

What incidental secondary characters come to mind for you? I’d love to hear about them.


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