Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.11: Writing Secondary Characters, with Charlaine Harris

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard, with special guest Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris joined us in front of a live audience at the GenCon Writers Symposium to talk with us about secondary characters—why they’re so important, why they can be difficult to write well, and how she brings her secondary characters to life without giving them a POV.

Homework: Take something you’ve already written. Make your protagonist a secondary character, and make a secondary character your protagonist. Tell a new story with them in those roles.

Thing of the week: Grave Sight, by Charlaine Harris, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Secondary characters can be very rich. Make them interesting and vivid, and use them again, later on! Create a character when you need them, and they have a function, but make them multidimensional and interesting. Use the interaction with the main character, and what the protagonist tells us about them, to make the secondary characters come to life. Contradictions, and life outside the story, help make a character rich. Beware flanderization, turning a character into a quirky caricature. Change who they are, give them new problems and obstacles, kick them out of their rut. What are their goals, and what are their failure modes? If the secondary character starts to be more interesting than the main character, you can kill them, or you can complete their arc. Or you can change what they want, dial down their want, and dial up the main character’s stakes. What does the character really want? What are they striving for? What do they need more than anything else in the world? Keep those in mind, and your secondary characters will do the work they need to do.

[Mary] Season 13, Episode 11.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Secondary Characters, with Charlaine Harris, Live from GenCon!
[Brandon] We are so happy to have Charlaine on the podcast. Writer and editor extraordinaire.
[Charlaine] Thank you.
[Brandon] I’ve been in one of her anthologies. It was a super experience. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
[Charlaine] Well, I’ve been writing since… My first book was published in 1981, so I’ve had a long career. I’ve been around many publishing houses and many editors. I have a… I started writing on an electric typewriter. Computer’s a lot better. I’ve just been in this business and seen a lot of changes.
[Brandon] You’ve had… You’ve had at least two, three television shows?
[Charlaine] Yeah, three.
[Brandon] Three television shows going.
[Charlaine] Just three.
[Brandon] Only three.
[Charlaine] Just three.

[Brandon] So, Charlaine, you wanted to talk about writing secondary characters. We were talking before and you said this is something you particularly enjoy.
[Charlaine] I do.
[Brandon] Why? Why do you enjoy writing secondary characters?
[Charlaine] Because it’s easy to make your protagonist come to life. You concentrate so much on the protagonist. You build the protagonist from zero, from a little seed. They grow and grow and grow, and you add more and more to their personality and their world and what made them the way they are. But I hate it when I see secondary characters who could be very rich kind of go by the wayside. So I really love to create secondary characters, and to make them very interesting and vivid. And also to create characters I can use later on. Like the workhorses of the book. I don’t like to waste things by using them one time. I like to use them over and over.
[Dan] Well, it’s especially great in a series to have those show up later, and you come to really love them. One of my favorite book series is the Saxon tales by Bernard Cornwell. It’s great to see someone who is such a minor character in book 2, now is a major character by book 7, and you get to… It’s because of that richness that’s built into them.
[Charlaine] I agree that it’s a lot of fun to find more uses for the same character the further and further you go into the books, and how they can evolve and become, as you say, a more major character.

[Brandon] So, I’ve got a question for you. We’re talking about how we build them. Like, how much prewriting do you do, specifically for characters, and how much do you just let it develop naturally?
[Charlaine] I let it all develop naturally.
[Charlaine] All. I don’t plan very much. I create a character when I need the character, and the character has a function in the book. But I try to make them multidimensional enough and interesting enough to keep them running through the book. Because they can keep being useful to me all the way through. Some were useful to me through 13 books in the Sookie series. Some were just useful through through four or five books. But everybody’s got to work in my world.
[Charlaine] Nobody gets a free ride.
[Howard] It seems to me that if you’re writing for television, and actors have to actually take on the roles of these secondary characters, that if the actor says, “So what’s my motivation?” There has to be an answer. There has to be… The secondary character has to have a lot of life for it to work on TV.
[Brandon] Yeah. How much influence do you have over the television? A lot of people ask me…
[Charlaine] Zero.
[Brandon] Zero. Okay.
[Charlaine] I have zero.
[Mary] I just want to jump in…
[Howard] That makes it easier.
[Charlaine] Yeah. I’m not writing for television. I’m writing my book the best way I can, and the characters have to work in my book. When the television writers want to write their version of my book, that’s their problem.
[Charlaine] They have to work their own hitches out.
[Mary] I was going to say that one of the things… When you say having an actor go to the writer and say, “What’s my motivation?” That’s luxury. That never, never happens.
[Charlaine] One time, the actress who played Maenad in True Blood, whose name totally escapes me, came to me and said, “What would a maenad wear?” I said, “Nothing.”
[Charlaine] She said, “No, really. If she wore clothes, what would she wear?” I said, “She wouldn’t wear anything. She’s Maenad. Maenad’s don’t wear clothes. They live in the woods. They’re animals. They’re people animals, sort of. They’re not going to wear anything.” I… She just… She was just arguing from a place I couldn’t go, because in my world, that just wouldn’t happen. That was the show’s problem to dress her.

[Brandon] So, one of the biggest problems I see new writers have with secondary characters, is making them feel fleshed out and real when there is no viewpoint through their eyes. It seems like naturally as writers, it’s much easier to characterize someone when we see through their eyes, but those characters on the perimeters who are not necessarily getting a viewpoint, they can feel really flat. Particularly for a lot of new writers. How do you make them come alive? Without ever showing through their eyes?
[Charlaine] Hum… Of course, part of it’s their interaction… If I’m writing in the first person, and I most often do. Not always, but most often. Their interaction with the protagonist has to be what points them up, and what the protagonist tells us about the character. Like Terry Bellefleur, Vietnam vet, deeply scarred, loves hunting dogs. He just kind of rolled from there, into a really sympathetic character that I ended up liking and respecting a lot, because he was making the best of his life.
[Mary] Well, I think that one of the things that you just mentioned when you were describing him, he’s a Vietnam vet and he loves hunting dogs. These are two things that would, in some people, be contradictory. I sometimes think that’s one of the things with a secondary character that helps pull them out, is that they’re not just a single-threaded character.
[Charlaine] Right. Yeah, you could write a stereotypical Vietnam vet, but to me, he was so deeply scarred, people had disappointed him so much, that dogs are great companion for him. That, to me, made the character make sense, and gave him an identity and a passion.
[Dan] I do need to point out that I totally missed the sentence as he loves hunting [for] dogs.
[Dan] Then, when you described him as a sympathetic character, I thought, “Oo, I want to hear more…”
[Dan] “About how she pulled that off.”
[Charlaine] Yeah, that would have been a bigger challenge. One I’m not sure I could meet.
[Brandon] All you do is whistle, it’s really easy when they come running.
[Charlaine] Have a hotdog.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Charlaine, you’re going to tell us about one of your books.
[Charlaine] I am. I’m going to tell you about one of… If you want a gateway drug into my world, I might… Obviously, people here are people who like an element of the supernatural, most likely. I’ve written a lot of conventional mysteries. But I like my Harper Connelly series. If you’ve never read anything of mine, that gives you a taste of the odd… A very odd relationship with a big ick factor. Yet, they’re basically detective stories, but with an element of the supernatural in them.
[Brandon] Awesome.
[Charlaine] So it’s kind of hybrid.
[Howard] What’s the first book?
[Charlaine] The first book is Grave Sight. S. I. G. H. T.
[Brandon] Awesome. You guys should all go by that book and read it.

[Brandon] I’m going to self indulge for a minute. My favorite Charlaine Harris story is, I was like a pretty new author, one of my very first signings, and I’m a nobody. But Charlaine and I share an agent. So I’m doing this signing, and I had my very first signing in New York. I’m doing this signing and there’s actually a decent crowd. I’m starting to pick up, but I’m still… Then Charlaine walked in, to my signing. She just waited in line and went and sat down in one of the seats. Just at my signing to listen to my reading.
[Charlaine] I wasn’t going to walk on water.
[Brandon] I’m like, “Aaa…” This is when… I had just been in the bookstore and looked at the top 10 best-selling books of the week. Seven of them were yours in the top 10 list.
[Howard] So it was actually her chair.

[Brandon] So let me ask this to the group. One trouble I’ve had with side characters sometimes is I will come up with a quirk to define a side character, which will make them memorable, right? It’s great. They’ve got some weird quirk, they like philosophical questions, they like this or that, but then I have trouble expanding beyond the quirk, and the quirk becomes a cliché for the character. Have you ever had this happen?
[Brandon] How do you break them out of the quirk and make them a person?
[Dan] This is actually a huge problem. Big enough that it has a name. It’s called flanderization. Because of the character on The Simpsons. Who, over time, just became a caricature of himself.
[Brandon] Right. Right. That’s weird.
[Charlaine] I did not know that.
[Brandon] [garbled I can totally think of it] because Flanders used to be like the fun neighbor. Now, he’s just like a string of one-liners about… Yeah. Yeah.
[Dan] You can watch that… There’s entire websites dedicated to it. There are all these TV characters who eventually lose their spark of life and just become the writers repeating the same quirks and same tropes over again. I find what works for me to keep that from happening is to keep changing who they are. To make sure that they have new problems to overcome, or new obstacles that they face, that will change them subtly so that it kind of knocks them out of their rut.
[Howard] I worked in the other direction. I build a spreadsheet for the chronology of the universe in order to get a bunch of quotes in the right order for a different project. As I was writing that, I realized, “Oh, wait. These two characters were involved in the same war at the same time. How old was she? Oh, my gosh, she totally would have been involved in this. Where was she? What was she doing?” As I did that, just looked backwards at the chronology… When the protagonist, when my main characters are doing these things, where is everybody else? What are they up to? As I answered those questions, I learned some neat things about them.
[Mary] So one of the things that Howard said earlier that I laughed out was the “What’s my motivation?” Is that I do actually try to make sure that I know what each of my characters… What their goals are, and also what their failure mode looks like. Because those are the two things that drive us, and they are not necessarily the same thing. Which basically goes back to the everybody is the hero of their own story that I will sometimes… I won’t do this with tertiary characters. But with a secondary character, I will sometimes make sure that they have a story that is going on outside everything else. So that… Because every time you walk into a room, there’s baggage…
[Charlaine] Sure. Yeah.
[Mary] That you’re bringing in from the outside world. So, sometimes if I can do that, it will make them seem a little more alive, and it won’t allow them to just become the quirk.

[Brandon] Reversal of that question then. I have occasionally had side characters become more interesting than the main characters. What do you do in that situation?
[Charlaine] Kill them.
[Brandon] Oh, wow. You’re serious, though. Yeah.
[Charlaine] Well, not totally.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Charlaine] But a little bit, seriously.
[Howard] Well, if you’re writing horror, if you’re writing crime fiction, if you’re writing something where the death of a character is… Would be the fulfillment of a promise that you made by virtue of where the book was shelved, then that’s a great solution. You’re too interesting. Readers really love you. Goodbye.
[Zzzzt! Bzzz…zzzt!]
[Brandon] Yeah. I’ve got to… A way to do that without being quite so morbid.
[Brandon] I don’t know if you would ever not want to…
[Dan] Well, I would.
[Brandon] When I got handed the Wheel of Time, one of the things I had was, I had a very large cast to deal with. A lot of characters fighting for space. If I just started… Some of them, I just offed. I’m like, “You’re dead. You’re gone.”
[Brandon] I did do that with some.
[Howard] That’s not morbid.
[Brandon] But there were some beloved characters that had arcs and things like this. I realized you can kind of effectively kill a character by wrapping up their arc. Right? Even though the book wasn’t wrapped up. So I started giving these characters kind of resolutions to some of these major character arcs that… Even though they were side characters, they’d been going for a long time. Once the side character’s arc gets resolved, they really fade is what I found, for readers and for me as a writer. It’s like, “Good. We don’t have to keep this person in our head anymore. It’s been done, it’s good.” Then we… I just kind of started checking them off the list. Die or get resolved, die or get resolved, until only the main characters were left…
[Brandon] Which allowed me to really focus on them, for the last part of the books.
[Mary] So if you don’t have the problem of dealing with characters that already exist, like in a long-running series. If it’s a one-off, one of the things that I’ll do is, I’ll recast them. Which is what Charlaine was talking about earlier when she was saying that every character has to work, that there’s a function that they’re serving. So I’ll look at what the function of the character is. I’m like, “Okay, so I have essentially put the wrong actor in this role.” I will just recast them and keep going. Sometimes what I’ll do is recast where I am, and then go back and rewrite the beginning after I’ve gotten to the end to change the characterization to pull stuff out.
[Charlaine] Another thing you can do to give them dimension is to discover within yourself and let your reader know what that character really wants. What does that character want? What is he striving for? What does she need more than anything else in the world? That will give the character an extra motivation and dimension and drive that you might not have had otherwise, if they were just goofing around.
[Mary] Yeah, and if you find that the character is starting to take over the story, a lot of times it’s because you’ve picked a want that is more interesting than the main character’s want. So either you have to bump up what your main character wants and make it more… The stakes more immediate and personal for the main character or you have to pick a different motivation for your secondary.
[Charlaine] Yeah.
[Brandon] I’ve said this before on the podcast, but one of my biggest hangups as a new writer was this. It was the opposite of what you just said. I was not giving my secondary characters enough passion and life outside of the story. My main characters were starting to feel very real, but my side characters were just there to facilitate what the main character was doing. So everybody fell into a really bad cliché or felt really wooden. Because they didn’t seem to have any life or anything they wanted other than to facilitate making the main character’s life easier or harder if they were an antagonist.
[Charlaine] Yeah.
[Mary] One of the… You mentioned quirk. But one of the things that I have found that can make a character really pop out is that contradiction. So if you’ve seen The Expanse, the first episode, one of the commanding officers on this ship has this collection of glass cats. He’s this real hard nose. You never find out why he has this collection of glass cats. But, just that makes him feel like there is a story that exists for this man outside. It’s not that in every scene, he has to have a glass cat. You just need that to happen once for the character to suddenly… Like, oh, there’s obviously more here.

[Brandon] We are out of time. This has been awesome. I’m going to give us some homework. Because I thought it would be very interesting to force you to take something you have written already, and take the protagonist and make them a secondary character, and make the secondary character the protagonist of a different story. Make your main character fade to the background, make one of your secondary characters come to the front, write a new story doing that.
[Dan] Cool.
[Brandon] I want to thank Charlaine. Thank you so much.
[Charlaine] Oh, thank you for inviting me.
[Brandon] I want to thank our audience at GenCon.
[Whoo! Applause]
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.