Does Your Secondary Character Undermine Another Character’s Role?

by | Writing | 4 comments

“The glory of the protagonist is always paid for by a lot of secondary characters.” —Tony Hoagland


Most fiction writers have heard that the purpose of secondary characters is to support a main character. One of their jobs is to help flesh out a main character’s identify. Another of their tasks is to move the story along. Another is to give the main character someone to talk to, instead of the character constantly reflecting internally.

Recently, I learned in a mentoring session that one of my minor characters undermined the purpose of a secondary character.

The Set Up:

A young widow has had a special relationship with her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law considers the widow her daughter. In the widow’s grief she’s been pulling away from her in-laws.

My Problem:

The widow deals with some ugly information about her deceased husband. I needed her to relocate for a while.

My Solution:

Image courtesy of photostock at

Image courtesy of photostock at

I have the widow’s mother call and ask the widow to come home and help with her father’s illness. So, the widow goes home to help her mother. 

The Problem with My Solution:

The widow’s mother-in-law is a major secondary character, whereas the widow’s mother has a short-lived appearance. The widow already has a nurturing character for support: her mother-in-law. The widow’s real mother, a nurturer, downplays the mother-in-law’s purpose, and to some extent makes her unnecessary. The reader’s emotions may be split between the two nurturers, watering down the reader’s connection to either mother figure.

A Better Solution:

  • My mentor in the session suggested the widow’s mother be out of the picture (deceased or unavailable).
  • She also thought the widow should visit someone on a more equal basis with her such as a sister or friend.
  • And finally, she proposed the widow make the visit because, in dealing with her grief and the ugly information about her husband, she needs to get away. A more character driven motive.
by DuBoix

by DuBoix

My Reaction:

  • I liked the suggestions. Now I don’t need to mess with the widow’s caretaking back home, which doesn’t move the story along.
  • The widow’s strong relationship with her mother-in-law motivates the widow to visit her in-laws, which puts her together with her brother-in-law, the hero.
  • Her departure because she’s overwhelmed ups this reserved and no-nonsense widow’s likeability.
  • And her sister can play the part I needed her mother to play for a short time. The sister’s purpose is to move the story along. The mother-in-law’s purpose is to nurture, mentor, and move the story along.

What you can do when a secondary character horns in on another’s role. Click to tweet.

What tips do you have for creating secondary characters?

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  1. Jane Foard Thompson

    I have the problem of secondary characters sometimes being more real than the main character. I think I’m more relaxed in creating them, not asking as much, so their personalities emerge. This is an area I need to work on. Thanks, Zoe.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Jane, I think your reason that secondary characters personalities emerge is so true. At least, for me as well.

  2. Kim Kendall

    I can see this in my own writing as well. My secondary character was slated to pass away but when I got to that point I realized how much I liked her and didn’t want to see her go. I wondered if readers would be mad that she died. Then I wondered if I should change the entire story and approach from her POV. What to do?! In the second revision I toyed with letting her live by the skin of her teeth which would give the MC success of his quest at the end rather than defeat. It would make a happier ending rather than a growth-through-grief ending. I hope that makes sense!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Kim, I like your revision using your secondary character to enable the main character to succeed, especially if in doing so he faces his greatest fear and conquers it.

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