Wednesday, August 8, 2012

41. The key to creating three-dimensional secondary characters

In previous posts I talked about several ways to flesh out your main characters, such as basing them on real-life people and fine-tuning your characters’ motivation. But what about secondary characters? For me, the main key to animating less-important characters is visual.


Cut out pictures. This sounds like something you would do in grade school, but it can be helpful in writing a novel, especially one with many characters. Flipping through magazine ads may give you a hint. Once you see a photo that screams: “That’s Celeste!” it may also be easier to grasp her personality.

Think of famous actors who might play the character and then write for that actor. A colleague who has written a successful mystery confided that she was able to write an important secondary character only when she visualized a specific actress in the role. Once she had done that, she could also “hear” the voice, and the character became real to her.

Give your character a quirk. In Pandora’s Genes and its sequel, Pandora’s Children, several generals in the Principal’s army play a role in the story. To keep them straight in my mind, and also to help readers keep them straight, I gave each general a trait that was noted most times they appeared. For example, Ralf is elderly and has a stutter; Marcus dresses like a dandy and spends excessive time on personal grooming; while Eric, who in my mind looks like Hugh Jackman, is hot-headed and impulsive.

It is important to keep the quirks from taking over, or you can end up with a character who is nothing but a collection of tics.

Let the character’s appearance do double duty. The evil drug dealer in The Ptorrigan Lode is described as having a “patchwork face,” which I explain early on is the result of radiation burns. This gives us an idea of how he looks—and also how he has lived his life.

In another example, readers tell me that Ivory, the teenager who befriends Peej and Annie in Going to See Grassy Ella, is a very memorable character. I knew that I wanted her to be very different from the two sisters, and also to have an innocence about her. Ivory became real to me when I began to visualize her as a former student in one of my Freshman English classes, a very bright girl who dressed in what she thought was the height of punk fashion: ripped black clothing, hair dyed blue on one side, the other side of her head shaved; and multiiple piercings on her ear, nose, cheeks, and lips.

Next week I will answer some questions readers have sent or asked in these posts. Please feel free to ask anything you’d like to know, either about my books or about writing. Post a comment here, or email me through the link to my website.


  1. Of your characters you mention, Ivory, for me, was the easiest to visualize. I, too, saw her as someone I knew personally. She was quite vivid.

    1. Thanks. I always wondered what happened to that student. She was very bright and a good writer. That whole class was special, and I still remember several of the students. I wonder if any of them remember me....