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Characters: Secondary, Tertiary, and Background

How is the supporting cast important?

December 13, 2018

B. C. Marine, CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing

A few weeks ago, we looked at deuteragonists and tritagonists. Now let’s look at our final character types at the bottom of the hierarchy. This will be a bit shorter than the other articles, but the support cast is still important enough to discuss.

What are they?

Secondary

These are the most essential of the supporting characters. They aren’t main characters and don’t have their own plotlines, but they are at least frequently recurring, if not present throughout the story.

Mentors, comic relief, and brothers-in-arms are all common secondary characters. In romance, the best friends whom the lovers discuss their relationship with are almost staple secondary characters.

If someone needs to die and leave a lasting impression, it’s most often a secondary character. That’s because their recurrance makes them matter more to the reader and the protagonist, but they don’t have thier own plot or character arc to derail with their departure from the story.

Tertiary

These are one-scene wonders. In longer works they might show up twice or maybe three times, but in general, you won’t see them again. They are important to the scene they’re in and can even be named.

In an adventure, these might be the friends and family who are left behind by the protagonist. They’re important to establishing who the protagonist is, but part of their importance is that they don’t get to stay in the story.

Other characters may step into the story later but leave soon after. In mystery, a tertiary character may appear for one scene as a suspect, only to point the investigation to someone else.

Background

These are basically props. If they’re named, it’s usually because they’re referenced by another character in passing without being shown. When they’re in a scene, they may get a line or two without drawing focus, or they may not speak at all.

Soldiers in a war or battle are usually background characters because nobody has time or interest in reading details about dozens or hundreds of people.

Background characters can also show up one-by-one if they serve a needed function that isn’t relevant to the plot. For example, if two main characters are catching a taxi together, there obviously needs to be a driver, but most of the details about them probably don’t matter.

All Together

Although supporting characters are short on page time and often details as well, they fill a valuable role in storytelling. Without support characters, the main characters act in a vacuum. With them, the setting is richer and livelier.

Join us next week for our two-part series on what happens when you write a novel!

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