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The Characters in Orbit

Last week we talked about what it takes to make a realistic main character. We discussed how to start by making some decisions for him, but then letting him make other decisions for himself.

We even went through the character creation process. The end result was Nathan, a 17-year-old boy with OCD who lives with his dad. Through the process of using improvisation rather than planning to develop his personality, we also discovered that he’s a picky eater, he avoids intimacy with others, and he’s observant of people.

His character still needs considerable amounts of prewriting and improvisation to make him ready for a novel. But for the purposes of this demonstration, we’re going to instead focus on the secondary characters that fill his world.

The secondary characters are the ones who help or hinder your main character on his quest. They’re his best buddies, his love interests, his enemies.

And they require just as much time and attention as your main character.

Don’t believe me? Think back on the Harry Potter series. Be honest. Would you have kept reading if it weren’t for Ron and Hermione, for Sirius and Snape? Those aren’t some of the bestselling novels of all time because we care about Harry. We care about all of the characters in that world. Even if there are some characters we don’t care about, it’s not because they’re flat. It’s because they have strong personalities that we genuinely don’t like.

Would The Princess Bride have been a cult classic without Inigo and Fezzick? Would Firefly fanboys foam at the mouth without Wash and Kaylee? What’s The Lord of the Rings without Gimli and Gollum? The Chronicles of Narnia without Puddleglum and Reepicheep? Romeo needs Mercutio and Tybalt. Woody is nothing without Buzz.

I rest my case.

The process of developing realistic secondary characters is simple. It’s the same as the process for developing realistic main characters.

Secondary characters are the main characters of their own stories. They need to be just as thought out, just as rich, as your primary protagonist and antagonist. After all, that’s how real life is. Other people are just as real as you and me.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that secondary characters are only there to serve the protagonist. They’re not. If they’re good characters, then they’ll be interested in making society better, though how they define better is not necessarily how the main character defines it. And if they’re selfish, they’re only out to serve themselves.

This is why Shakespeare’s work has lasted this long. Every character was vivid, every relationship real. We can see eye-to-eye with Macbeth and Macduff and pity one and cheer the other. We can facepalm at Beatrice and Benedick because they’re so completely self-absorbed. We forget that they aren’t actual people.

Let’s put it into practice. Just as we did last week, let’s create a character to go alongside Nathan.

This time let’s make a girl. Same age. The temptation here is to start characterizing her by how she feels about the protagonist. Don’t fall for it! She’s a person in her own right. I do believe that she needs to come from a strong, nuclear family, let’s say the middle of five children.

And what does she want from life? She may not have it all figured out, but I bet she feels very passionate about a particular cause she volunteers with. Orphans? Too cliché. Let’s say she’s trying to get an internship at a physical therapy clinic.

Erin leaned back against the tile wall and sighed. Her nose rankled at the faint smell of disinfectant. Her arms were killing her. Mister Peters was a really nice man, but that didn’t make massaging his knee any easier.

Doctor Duval had said her muscles would build up with the practice. Erin knew she was right, as usual. She just wished it didn’t take so long.

Someone cleared his throat nearby. Erin hadn’t realized she’d closed her eyes. She opened them and looked up.

Gary stood over her, arm in a brace, goofy smile shining in the fluorescent light.

Erin sighed. She wanted to close her eyes again, but she didn’t know him well enough yet to trust him.

“Hi, Gary.”

Gary apparently took that as an invitation to sit down. He glanced at her, then carefully adjusted so that he was sitting just like she was.

“…H-Hi, Erin.”

Erin didn’t want to start the conversation, but she didn’t want to be rude, either. “How do you feel today?”

“G-Good. Great. Even.”


“You know what would make me feel better?”

Erin winced. “No, Gary. What?”

She waited patiently as he stammered. “T-t-t-taking you out for dinner tonight.”

She’d guessed as much from the way he’d gawked at her over the last few weeks. The way he asked for her help even though he was assigned to someone else.

Telling him no would hurt him. She hated to see that look on someone’s face. But she couldn’t lead him on, either.

“That wouldn’t be very ethical,” Erin said.

That confusion, it was so innocent. “Ethical?”

“It’s not right for therapists to date their patients.”

There it was. He was beyond crestfallen. He looked like a deflated zeppelin.

Do no harm, indeed.

How about that? I wanted to find some kind of flaw, some mistake for her to make, but I just didn’t get an opportunity. No matter. I can use another scene to find her character flaws. This one showed me how responsible and level headed she is. She isn’t flighty, but she’s still compassionate. That’s a lot for fewer than 300 words.

I didn’t make it a scene where she interacts with Nathan, not yet. That’s for next week, when we discuss the most important part of character creation. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion.

This article took four read-throughs.

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