Primary characters would normally include the protagonist, antagonist, and maybe one or two "fellow travelers" of these. Secondary characters would consist of non-trivial characters that are not primary characters.

My understanding is that the primary characters should be developed to the point where the audience knows them as their lover or best friend, because that's what they are for the duration of the work. Can secondary characters be developed to a lesser extent? If so, how much less? Can a secondary character such as a doctor even be a "generic" character, or is that treating him or her with too little importance?

7 Answers 7


Yes, you can develop secondary characters, and should to the extent your narrative has room.

While they are multi-volume arcs, David & Leigh Eddings's Belgariad and Malloreon series are good examples of this. The main character is Garion, later Belgarion. Other major protagonists are his aunt Polgara, grandfather Belgarath, and eventual wife Ce'Nedra. There are five or six secondary protagonists who travel with them on their quest, and all of them get enough backstory and character development that you know who each person is individually and separate from Belgarion's story.

You don't want to overwhelm a single book with eight characters' backstories, but each person should get enough presentation that they are distinguishable. And please try to give everyone a personality and at least a suggestion of a life which has nothing to do with the hero. This is critical for a love interest. The Love Interest should have a life which starts before s/he meets your hero. Family, friends, hobbies, history, a job.

If everyone in your book exists solely to perform a function for the protagonist, your book may feel flat. You don't have to have 20 heroes, but yes, some fleshing out is good.


I think there's no way you can "overdevelop" a character. (This is different from "page time", mind you -- you may have a very well-developed character that hardly shows up in your finished story.) The better you know a character, the easier it will be to work with them and the lesser are the chances of you succumbing to some boring cliche.

As a writer, character-development is the most important (and most fun) aspect of my writing process. My current novel tells the story of an entire segment of society that requires a number of (very different) characters. Developing all of these took a long time, but it definitely paid off. Even if a given character will end up playing only a minor role in the end, I am sure that I can handle this character well and give him or her an appropriate voice. Doing all this character-development was what brought the story to real life for me.

The downside of all this "getting to know your characters" better is that you grow very fond of them very quickly. Take car not to write your own "fan fiction" in which you gush on and on about your great, lovable characters without adding to the plot. The best advice I ever got in writing is related to this problem: Kill your darlings. Be meticulous about this and always keep your "main message" in mind. Ask yourself: Do I really need this scene to arrive at the point of the story to which it all boils down? Don't make excuses when answering this question.

From a reader's perspective, I think that well-developed secondary characters is what really fleshes out a good book. In my favourite book, for example (the German "Center of my worl" by Andreas Steinhoefel), my favourite character to this day is the main character's uncle. He shows up only a few times throughout the book, but these few times are enough to paint him as a full character, with troubles, lost loves, joys, and a life that is pretty independent of the main character (in agreement with Lauren's point). To this day, I would marry this guy on the spot.

Lastly, I want to make the point that I generally use my secondary characters to lighten the story a bit. Heroes are not always easy -- they suffer, they make mistakes, sometimes it's hard to really like them. Secondary characters can ease this load of suffering a bit by providing good-natured characters that are easy to like. With respect to this, it makes a lot of sense to put effort into building your secondary characters and prevent them from being shallow.


Sure, well-developed characters are good, but... Things like character development take time. You can add another 100 pages to your book developing secondary characters, but would it worth it? It's best to find a delicate balance between levels of character development and book's volume.


It's possible to give a secondary character an independent background and personality without weighing down your narrative. A lot of this also depends on the purpose of the character to your plot. For example, if you plan on killing them and want an emotional response from the reader when they die, then you need to give them enough that they will care when it happens. A lot of times their backstory can just be woven in as the story goes along so that you can accomplish two things at once. That way it doesn't feel like you're stopping the narrative just to give exposition on this person, but you still make them stand out.


For me, the answer comes down to two questions: How much of what you know about the character are you going to use in the text? And what does story structure dictate with respect to how much time you can spend on character development and other aspects of the story such as the conflict?

First question:

I'd like to differentiate between how much you show about the character in the story and how much you know about the character in total.

I.e. there's character development in the text, and there's character development "beside" the text. And how much of each do you need to do?

If you put everything you know about your character in the story, one of two problems will likely occur.

If you have a lot of info about your character and put everything in, the story risks becoming bloated and you probably deny the reader any "imagination between the lines".

If on the other hand, your story is well sized, but you don't know more about your character than what you have put in the story, the risk is there are no "hidden depths" in the story. The character risks becoming boring and flat.

Someone once told me you should know 100 times more about your character than what you put in the text. I am not sure that's good or bad advice. I guess it comes down to how you count to 100.

But, regardless, you should know more about your character than what you put in the text, and the text should have a "sane" word count. Or, in fact, a sane structure, meaning, in most cases, you cannot spend the whole story detailing the character's backstory and hope to sell it as a story worth reading.

Which brings us to question two:

How much time can you spend on character development with respect to story structure?

This question has two answers. First, and foremost, every word about your character, her actions, thoughts, and emotions should reflect who she is, where she's been and where she's going, so you can spend 100% of your story developing your characters.

Especially since story plot and character arc should be the same. Or, to put it another way: the external story should be a metaphor for the character's internal development.

Regardless: Character development should equal story plot.

Another way to answer the question is to look at story structure and where it will be dominated by conflict and plot and where it will be dominated by introducing the story (and character).

Let's boil it down to actual word counts.

If an average novel is 100 000 words (you can recalculate for other sizes) the first plot point should happen at about 20-25% (20 000 - 25 000 words into the story).

This is when your characters are being slapped with a catastrophe that will require them to start acting. From now on there's very little room for character development in the sense that you spend time introducing a character. You still have actions and mannerisms, and of course, there should be some low points where someone could tell a story from their past.

But you risk being confusing if your readers don't know who the characters are at this point.

Confusing, or boring. Because reading about a car accident with someone you don't know is like reading a newspaper article, while reading about someone you know being in the same accident is a completely different thing. You want the latter when you write the "car crash" that is the first plot point.

In fact, your reader should probably know all your major characters already at the "inciting event" (which in my parlance occurs halfway into the first act, i.e. at 10% - 12.5%, 10 000 to 12 500 words into the story).

The inciting event is the point where the characters are being affected by the story directly for the first time, so up to that point your writing does not have to be so much about the conflict. You can spend more time on the characters instead.


10 000 to 25 000 words to develop your characters to the point where the reader cares what happens to them in a car crash isn't much at all. And at the same time, since you should know more about your characters than what you put in the text you still have to have a sheet of info even on the most minor of characters.

I like to give every character an ambition and a goal, even the cab driver that only transports the main character from point A to B. That way I can figure out if s/he's an angry cab driver, a happy cab driver or if s/he's daydreaming about a completely different place.

From there you could "draw a line" to the most fleshed out characters you have (the protagonist and the antagonist?) and put all the other characters somewhere in between.


I'll go right ahead and declare that you're far too versed in 'writing theory' than the practise of writing itself.

All the writing techniques being questioned are related. Once you understand that basic fact all the other technical terms fall into place.

Start with the basic "SHOW DON'T TELL".

As an egotistical writer you are itching to tell YOUR story but it's not YOUR story it's the character's story.


You want to tell us that Bob's wife had left him and ever since he'd taken to drinking after work - don't do it. SHOW us Bob dragging his young intern Vanessa (a secondary character) to the bar every night after work. Bob confides in Vanessa but the more Bob talks and Vanessa listens you are developing both characters. Why does Vanessa put up with this shit? Does she fear for her job? How far will she go to get ahead? Or does she fancy her boss? Or maybe she's just a good listener.

Every time characters interact you are developing both characters.


It depends on the significance of your secondary characters/how much they show up in the text. If it's just a taxi driver who opens the door and never reappears/reappears one more time, there's no need to develop him/her, aside from maybe basic physical characteristics.

If your secondary character keeps popping up, maybe a butler who the main character talks to for advice from time to time, it would be best to develop the butler somewhat, but to a lesser extent than the primary character.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.