We discussed the best ways to introduce your main character in our previous blog post/video on how to write the perfect beginning. Now, it is apt that we discuss the best ways to introduce your secondary characters.
We shall discuss a variety of different roles that secondary characters have played, the timings of their introductions, and how they are introduced in their respective stories. And I hope my tips make the writing process a little easier for you as well.
Pre-Note – The Four Factors When Introducing A Character
Last time around, we discussed four factors that are required to introduce a character in an intriguing way to grab the audience’s attention. These were:
- Give the audience a flavour for the character (i.e. his status, personality and goals);
- Hint at his struggles and goals for the rest of the narrative (without divulging too much detail);
- Add parts in the dialogue that are key to the character, which will be extrapolated over the course of the narrative.
- Show the context of the world in which he lives in.
(It may not be possible to implement all four of these points when introducing your secondary character. But you should still aim to apply as many of these as possible. Then, you will give your audience a great taste for what is to come vis-à-vis your character.)
1 – The Useful Assistant
Surprise, surprise, the useful assistant is there to provide some much needed assistance to the main character. When the protagonist has a problem, the useful assistant will pull a figurative rabbit out of a hat. (In other words, he will find a solution in the nick of time.)
Example – Hermione Grainger
We meet Hermione when Harry and Ron are on their way to Hogwarts for the first time in The Philosopher’s Stone. Hermione asks the two boys if they have seen a toad as Neville, another student, has lost it. Then, she watches Ron do a spell wrong, prior to showing off a bit of her own magical knowledge. Subsequently, she tells the two boys to put on their robes, as they will need it for when they arrive at Hogwarts. Then, she walks off.
Thus, right from the off, we get the sense that:
- Hermione is intelligent, knowledgeable, and very confident in herself.
- She is likely become the know-it-all of the class and Harry’s go-to-person when he needs to solve a problem.
- She will tell off Harry and Ron again at some point in the story; and
- Hermione lives in a world similar to our own, just with wizards.
Plus, we are introduced to her around a fifth of the way through the first novel in the series. This highlights her significance to the plot.
1a – The Ambiguous, Unreliable Ally
A variation of the useful assistant is the ambiguous, unreliably ally. To make him seemingly undependable, you’ll need to introduce him in a way that shows that he cannot be trusted. This is despite the fact that he will provide support when it matters most.
Example 1 – Selina Kyle/Catwoman from The Dark Knight Rises
We meet Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) in one of the first scenes in the film as a waitress in Wayne Manor. But her being a waitress is a ruse, so that she can steal Bruce’s fingerprints and his mother’s pearls, for good measure. (Oh yeah, Selina is a thief. And tea leaves are not exactly known for being trustworthy, are they?)
An injured Bruce notices her. She acts all apologetic and innocent at first. But then Bruce points out that she is wearing his mother’s pearls, which she stole from his allegedly uncrackable safe. Instantly, Selina adopts her confident and witty persona, prior to kicking away the cane Bruce uses to walk with. Then, backflipps out of the window to escape in acrobatic fashion.
Therefore, from Selina Kyle’s introduction, we gain the sense that:
- She is a chameleon, a thief, and intelligent in a manipulative way;
- Her and Bruce are likely to meet again, and that neither he nor the audience will ever know whose side she’s on;
- There is likely to be more witty banter and sizzling chemistry between these two characters; and
- Selina exists in Gotham, a corrupt city where everyone is out for themselves.
Example 2 – Lord Thomas Stanley from The Red Queen
Lord Thomas Stanley is the third husband of our protagonist, Margaret Beaufort. He is a powerful nobleman in 15th-century England, and has a position at court.
We meet Lord Thomas when Margaret proposes a marital alliance with him. Lord Thomas seems pleased with the proposal. Margaret is a wealthy woman and has a son who has a claim to the throne. (This is because Henry Tudor is the last Lancastrian by this point in the story.)
From the moment, we meet Lord Thomas Stanley, we get the feeling:
- He is Machiavellian by nature, looks for ways to better his position, has a wolfish grin, and cannot be trusted;
- Lord Thomas is going to play a significant role in a war, and will back the side he believes he will benefit most from;
- His and Margaret’s marriage is political and loveless, and that their dialogue will be strictly political; and that
- Lord Thomas lives in late-15th century England, at a time of feudalism and constant internecine fighting between the Houses of Lancaster and York.
However, what is odd about the timing of Lord Thomas Stanley’s introduction is how late it comes. He’s introduced between half to two-thirds of the way through the book.
For a character who is going to play a significant role in the murder of the Princes in the Tower and at the Battle of Bosworth, this is most surprising. Introducing a character so late in the narrative entails that there is not much time left to flesh him out. Yet, Philippa Gregory manages to do this very successfully.
2 – The Supportive Friend
The supportive friend is not quite a useful assistant. He is there to be loyal and to support the protagonist at all times. Moreover, he must come up with an idea at some point that will have significance to the plot.
Example – Pippin
Peregrine ‘Pippin’ Took from The Lord of the Rings, is loyal to both Frodo and Merry. But Merry in particular.
We meet Pippin at Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, sneaking into a tent and lighting the biggest firework… inside the tent. Then, he is made to wash up as punishment for his idiocy. In fairness to Pippin, he does this obediently with his friend, Merry, and without a fuss.
Thus, from the way Pippin is introduced, we can appreciate the following about his character:
- He is a Hobbit who is mischievous and not the brightest star in the sky, but that he enjoys having a good time and making those around him smile;
- His willingness to throw himself into mischief is how he will join Frodo and Sam on their quest, (plus get them into danger here and there);
- Pippin is likely to make those around him smile and laugh again; and
- He lives in a fantasy world.
Moreover, Pippin is introduced to us in one of the first scenes in the story, highlighting his importance.
From his introduction, though, could we have seen that he would become a hero and take his loyalty to the nth degree? Probably not. But he does show us a great deal of his positive nature in his introduction. Therefore, his heroism is just the furtherance of his character.
2a – The Fat, Funny Friend
The fat, funny friend is the poor cousin of the supportive friend. The fat, funny friend is in the story for comic relief and laughter. Indeed, frequently, his jokes revolve around his bulk and his appetite.
Alas, there is often not much to the funny friend. He adds little to the plot, and is unlikely to have a three-dimensional personality.
Example – Bombur from The Hobbit
Bombur is one of the thirteen dwarves, and pretty anonymous for much of the trilogy. (In fact, it was only on a review of The Hobbit films that I even noticed him!)
We meet Bombur when he and the other dwarves invite themselves into Bilbo’s house, and eat all his food. And that really sums him up. As for his personal motivations…? I don’t think he has any (other than to eat). If he has any motives, he doesn’t mention them. Instead, he just blends in with the other dwarves, with a few exceptions.
3 – The Love Interest
Traditionally, the love interest was acted by a good-looking woman, who would be in the narrative pretty much to stroke the macho, male main character’s ego. Her intelligence was irrelevant. She was just there so that the protagonist could save here.
The role seems completely out of date in 2021.
Example – Dr Christmas Jones from The World Is Not Enough
Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) is a nuclear physicist who knows how to diffuse a nuclear bomb. However, her real role in the film was given within an instance of meeting her, when tells James Bond: “Are you here for a reason? Or are you just lookin for a glimmer?”
Thus, as soon as we meet Dr Christmas Jones (and try not to laugh at silliness of of the name), we grasp the following:
- Dr Christmas Jones is the classic damsel-in-distress and there for eye-candy.
- She will likely get caught or put herself into life-threatening situations, meaning that James Bond will have to save her.
- She is the damsel in distress; and
- She lives in the latter-1990s is the damsel in distress.
There’s really not much to Dr Jones’ role. Today, her role would probably be deemed insulting to most women. But this film was released in 1999. The world was different place in that millennia.
Also, take note of how we are introduced to Dr Christmas Jones. We meet her midway through the film and skimpily-dressed in the middle of a nuclear facility, with radiation everywhere. Need I really say anything about the hazards of walking around nuclear facility dressed like Lara Croft?
Honestly, it was as if the filmmakers knew that the role was a poor and unimportant one. So, they introduced her as late as was plausibly possible for a major character, and then wasted no time in showing us her true purpose.
4 – The Mentor
The mentor is the one who guides the main character toward his goal. Usually, the mentor takes the form of a father, a mother, a friend, or a teacher; although, the mentor tends to be older (and wiser) than the protagonist.
Example 1 – Brom from The Inheritance Cycle
In Eragon, Brom plays something of a classic village elder, who tells stories over a fire. However, we get the feeling that he has a significant role to play in the story as, by the time we meet him, the eponymous Eragon is a dragon rider. Eragon is in need of knowledge and training, and Brom knows quite a bit about both. So, who better to be his mentor?
Thus, from the moment we meet Brom, when he tells the story about the fall of the dragon riders, we gain the sense that:
- Brom has a pensive appearance and is going to be the mentor figure for Eragon;
- He will have to teach Eragon a lot in a short time;
- There is more to Brom than what meets the eye (because it is a classic fantasy trope that the village elder knows more than he lets on); and
- Brom lives in a medieval-like, fantasy world, with a villainous, all-powerful king in complete control of the country.
Example 2 – Terence Fletcher from Whiplash
We meet Fletcher (JK Simmons) in the opening scene, as he watches the protagonist, Andrew Niemann, play the drums. Andrew stops playing because Fletcher appears. Then, Fletcher emerges from the darkness, to dominate the screen. He has an imposing presence due to his size, and the all black suit and shirt add to his authoritative aura.
Fletcher questions Andrew, probingly, as to why he stopped playing, and urges him to continue. But then, while Andrew is playing, Fletcher walks out, giving no hint as to whether he is impressed by Andrew’s skills. Or not.
From Fletcher’s introduction, we get the sense that:
- Fletcher is intimidating, difficult to please, and not a particularly nice person;
- He is looking for talented people to play in his band;
- He and Andrew are going to have many more conversations, in a teacher-pupil relationship, in which he is going to push Andrew hard; and
- Fletcher is the head of a music school, and his decision counts.
Moreover, as he is introduced to us in the very first scene, we appreciate that Fletcher has a significant role to play as a mentor.
5 – The Bad Influence
The bad influence is something of an inverted mentor. If the mentor is in the story to help the main character go down the right path, the bad influence does the opposite. He influences him to go down the wrong road.
Example – Lord Henry Wotton from The Picture of Dorian Gray
We are introduced to Lord Henry in the opening scene in the book. As Basil the Painter paints the portrait of the titular Dorian, Lord Henry waffles on about the virtues of a hedonistic lifestyle. (Which he clearly doesn’t abide by it as he is a married and faithful husband.)
Lord Henry’s sardonic assertion that beauty is the only aspect of life worth pursuing makes Dorian realise that he will age but that the portrait of him will not. Subsequently, Lord Henry encourages Dorian to enter into a Faustian pact, whereby the portrait will grow old but that he won’t. This, in turn, leads Dorian to pursue a life of decadence and debauchery, ever at Lord Henry’s insistence.
Thus, from the off, we realise that:
- Lord Henry is Intelligent and witty, but that he will be a bad influence on the young, impressionable Dorian;
- He is a hypocrite as he does not practice what he preaches;
- He will find new ways to regurgitate his hypocrisies throughout the narrative, to ensure that he lives vicariously through Dorian; and
- Lord Henry lives at the tail-end of Victorian England, when hypocritical morality was the way of life.
Furthermore, we are introduced to Lord Henry in the opening scene. This highlights his narrative significance.
6 – The Traitor
When you make a secondary character a traitor, the secondary character must be introduced early on in the story and be friends with the main character.
Example – Kevin Dunne in Snake Eyes
In the 1998 film, Snakes Eyes, detective Rick Santoro (played by Nicolas Cage) and US Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (played by Gary Sinise) are the best of friends. Moreover, they work together to ensure that the US Secretary of Defense is escorted to and from a boxing match safely.
But some shooting happens during the match and some people of semi-importance to the plot get killed. Rick suspects a conspiracy is at foot. Towards the end of the film, he learns that his old friend, Kevin, is behind the conspiracy.
Upon meeting Kevin, we can gauge the following:
- Kevin is seemingly a nice guy (even though, in reality, he is duplicitous);
- He is friends with Rick and seemingly wants the same objective (even though he really has a different objective);
- His dialogue with Rick is good and that the two alleged friends will work together (until Rick finds out that he has been betrayed); and
- Kevin lives in the latter-1990s, and is involved in the security sector.
In addition, Kevin is introduced to us early on in the film, highlighting his importance to the narrative.
7 – When You Don’t Show Your Secondary Character’s True Personality, Agenda, and/or Struggles in His Introduction
While I recommend you showing hints of your secondary character’s nature, role, and struggles when you first introduce him to the story, it is not a necessity. You can introduce him to the story however you like.
Indeed, you can introduce him with a completely opposite nature to what he becomes in the story. This makes for a great story-arc.
Example – Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings
We first meet Sam at Bilbo’s 111th birthday party. Sam appears shy, as he wants to dance with his romantic interest, Rosie, but doesn’t have the confidence to go up to her and ask her. So Frodo pushes him, and Sam dances with her.
Sam’s shy nature here is in contrast to the person he becomes after Gandalf tells him to go with Frodo to Mordor. Subsequently, Sam becomes a supportive friend, bold, and very brave; the latter two give Sam a wonderful story-arc.
From this blog post on the best ways to introduce your secondary characters, I hope you can deduce that how and when you introduce your supporting character varies depending upon the role that you want your secondary character to play.
Nevertheless, if you wish for a particular supporting character to have a significant effect on the plot, it is best to introduce him as early as possible. Usually, this means within the first third of the narrative.
That is not to say that there are no exceptions to this tip. But if you look at the examples we’ve discussed, the majority of the important secondary characters have tended to be introduced relatively early on in their respective narratives.
Thank you for reading this blog post on the best ways to introduce your secondary characters. I hope you have found it interesting and that it helps to make the writing process a little easier for you as well.
Let me know what you think, and what you think I have missed out, in the comments below.
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