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Deep and Fresh Traits for Majors

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More to know than you might guess.

Secondary characters in a story, novel, or screenplay, both major and minor, must be utilized to serve the story in several important ways. They deliver crucial exposition at the right time ("She's not who you think she is."), create complications and interpersonal conflicts that spice or jolt the narrative ("You can't shut me up!"), play a role in ushering the protagonist down the plot path ("If you don't leave now, the game will be lost.") or make it easier for the author to reveal facets of the protagonist's background or personality ("Have you told her you served time in prison?"), become an actual obstacle to the protagonist ("You'll die if you go there."), or serve as an interpretational viewpoint for the reader that better defines or magnifies the jeopardy, setting, or circumstances ("The Master of Dartmoor awaits, and the hounds will be released!")--or some combination of all the above. 

In general, secondary characters in a story exist to push the plot forward. Following on above, allow them to generate plot-related interpersonal conflict as often as possible. It's no fun if everyone gets along.

Regardless, back to the main point. One can introduce and dynamically portray secondary characters in such a manner as to make them more dimensional as the story progresses. Some authors actually recommend that as a writer you create a list of virtues and vices (or negatives) and apply them to each of your secondary characters in order to render them less than flat and predictable; however, that process can be an arbitrary one. In fact, traits or behaviors should manifest themselves as the circumstantial and psychological dynamics of the story evolve. Inventing a list of good and bad traits ahead of time and attempting to stick to them, in this context, might well prove counterproductive.

Instead, by considering the five approaches below, you will add more depth and complexity to your secondary characters and truly get to know them much better. And shouldn't you? Your sympathy and empathy for your own creations will pour onto the page (just don't drown the reader). However, you are well advised to have a VERY GOOD concept of your plot line(s), major dramatic complication(s), theme, and sets ahead of time. Why? Because all your characters will react, role play, and be defined within those contexts. It just makes sense. How can they exist in the vacuum of the blank page? They will gasp for the air of meaning and suffocate!

In general, secondary characters in a story exist to push the plot forward. Following on above, allow them to generate plot-related interpersonal conflict as often as possible. It's no fun if everyone gets along.

Going forward, brainstorm a copious amount of thoughts and notes. You might not translate all the information to the page, but it will be on hand just in case. And now, as follows, from the relatively straightforward to the more complex. What is the "Initial Attraction" of the reader to the character? How to create a character who gains the reader's interest or concern in a reasonably short amount of time? The techniques below work for novels, shorts, stage and screenplays as well.

  • Make them sympathetic by revealing they are, in one way or another, victims of unfairness, a tough life, recent bad luck, or problems of one kind or another (Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is adversely affected at school by her father's decisions, whereas Harry Potter is tortured by the Dursleys), e.g., bad accident, onset of illness, impoverishment, loss of a precious thing, etc. This IA factor may or may not be related to the "core wound" (see below). One can fall prey, so to speak, to of any number of things regardless of subconscious makeup born of a past tragedy or perceived failing.

  • Utilize the tried and true method of placing the character in a form of jeopardy, i.e, threat of physical and/or emotional harm that is reasonably serious or potentially devastating. The clock is ticking for them too. Will they be exposed? Humiliated? Defeated? Captured? Die a terrible death? It would not be difficult for this factor to interact with personal stakes (see below). A defined obsession could well lead to impending dire jeopardy as the clock ticks.

  • Create a character who possesses likeable traits or pursuits, e.g., possesses a quippy or quirky personality, bestows gifts of one kind or another, one of a kind expert (inventor, scientist, wizard, balloon race champion, etc.), gives to charities, protests against injustice, reads poetry to blind children, does good things for people under adverse circumstances. Nothing gratuitous, however. Allow this trait to play into the story. Perhaps it even creates trouble or heartache for the character? Why should results always be positive?

  • gollum.jpg
    But wait. Does a character have to be "likeable" to stir ongoing interest in the reader? Of course not. And what is the perfect example of this? None other than GOLLUM, that lovably loathsome creature from Lord of the Rings, also known as Sméagol. Talk about creating conflict, being a victim of a powerful force, issuing threats. The suspense never lets up as long as he's on the page.
Use of Personal Stakes and Backstory

What uniquely matters to any particular character? Why? What or who do they care about? Do they have a tangential or full blow subplot situation that engages or distracts them, e.g., does old Mr. Sarbanes, the last living investigative reporter in Scottsdale, have a grandchild he's putting through college? Is he struggling to keep his job?

In the novel, Piper Robbin and the American Oz Maker, the secondary character, Alcaeus, a resurrected Greek philosopher, is cursed by the rapid onset of a plague, but is determined at all costs to remain alive just long enough to witness the end of the world. It is important to him above all things. But why?

The best way to develop these "situational stakes" for a secondary character in the story is to first consider the character's backstory. Write down a history for the character--background, family relationships, social class, schooling, relevant watershed events. Allow this to play into their current personal stakes.

The Core Wound and the Dynamic of Desire

Explore your character deeply. Consider conscious motivation stimulated by both memory and subconscious pain. The "core wound" drives the character in certain unique ways, perhaps leads them on a journey to prove themselves. It's resolution, if it ever comes, will make them happier, healthier, or more in tune with the world around them. Does Citizen Kane come to mind? Of course, he failed to achieve resolution, and therein resided the ultimate tragedy.

However, you are well advised to have a VERY GOOD concept of your plot line(s), major dramatic complication(s), theme, and sets ahead of time. Why? Because all your characters will react, role play, and be defined within those contexts.

Fundamental and popular core wounds include loss of a parent, a broken heart, an ultimate mistake (the character could spend a lifetime trying to make amends), a big secret (the revelation of which could ruin or harm the character), or perhaps a perceived terrible failure in the character's past (a primary desire forever denied by a moment's hesitation or a small mistake).

From Psychology Today:

"Core wounds tend to be things like a sense of not being enough, of being unlovable to a parent, of feeling stupid, dirty, unwanted, or ugly. No matter what your core wound may be, you can guarantee that your wound influences who you are and how you behave."


"Every core wound is based on a basic knowledge that we are unacceptable as we are, so we have to adjust and change to be perceived as good. It influences our self-esteem and the very fabric of our thoughts."

And one core wound is usually enough. As famous screenplay writer Peter Russell points out:

"Tony Soprano had one big wound — my mommy hates me. But a bunch of desires came out of that — I love prostitutes, I love working at a strip club, I love hurting people, I love to be violent, I love to run things, I love being a boss, I love being a dad."

For Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer winner, novelist, screenplay writer, and distinguished professor at FSU, the central character issue involves the "dynamic of desire."
As he states in an interview online:
I use the word "yearning" with my students because it suggests the deepest level of desire, which is where fiction gets to. So fiction is the art form of human yearning. You can understand it because the one craft element that we most associate with narratives is plot. Plot is simply yearning challenged and thwarted.
So what is this telling us? Might this "yearning" be related to the core wound? Could it be? You're the author. You decide.

The Art of Contrast or Contradiction

The character develops a certain pattern of behavior, lures us in, then suddenly behaves in a manner that appears inconsistent or variant, surprising, though not in a way that is ultimately confusing. It cannot just be arbitrary. There must be an underlying reason. The simplest way to create a complex character is to contradict who a character appears to be. A secondary method is to have the character desire two things in conflict--the inner clash thereby created, reminding one of the classic inner devil vs. angel fighting for dominion of the soul.

According to author DAVID CORBETT:

"A contradiction is something about a person that piques our interest because it betrays what we expect, given what else we know or have observed."

And further as general categories:
    1. Contradictions Based on Physical, Ironic, or Comic Juxtaposition.
    For example, a homeless girl in full makeup and perfect hair; big guys named "Smalls"; or a guy in a suit drinking out of a sippy cup.

    2. Contradictions Based on Our Need to Serve Multiple Social Roles.
    As Mr. Corbett Says, "The tension created by these two antagonistic impulses–to control our behavior so we 'get along' and to let go and 'be ourselves'–forms one of the core conflicts of our lives."

    3. Contradictions Based on Competing Morals or Goals.
    For example, most people want to earn money, but they’d also rather be free than go to work.

    4. Contradictions That Result from a Secret or Deceit.
    Where keeping the secret leads the character to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

    5. Contradictions Based on Conscious Versus Unconscious Traits.
    For example, a character can be consciously mean to their spouse’s friend because they’re unconsciously attracted to the friend.

    6. Dispositional Contradictions.
    For example, a character can be violent in some circumstances and tender in others.
These contrasts and inner conflicts engage interest because the reader is curious as to which side will manifest itself next. Also, they create suspense since we'd like an explanation of the contrast or contradiction, and of course, they portray character complexity and depth.

The Sketch Bullets

Once you've considered the above, here are additional important brainstormers for fully fleshed major secondary characters (minor secondary most likely won't require this much detail).
  • PHOTOS AND PHYSICAL: You select from Internet photos of those you believe exemplify the physical form/attitude of the characters. Next, jot down the physical facets a bullet at a time, one page for pics and bullets.

  • ORIENTATION: Practical matters of existence. You orient this secondary character in time and space, i.e., you give them a job, a current reason for being, a place they inhabit, people they know, activities they participate in. Basics of what, where, when, how, why.

  • LIFE GOAL: What does this person wants most in life: peace? power? freedom? dignity? love? Is this ostensible goal related in any way to the core wound? Should it be?

  • PSYCHE PROFILE: You work up a psychological profile: strongest desire(s)/dislike(s), intelligence level, emotional profile (dark or light as a whole, easy or slow to anger), attitudinal qualities (e.g., biases towards objects/people in the environment that create cognitive issues), belief system (atheist, Hindu, Republican). Again, this will be related in one way or another to their core wound, and to their history, backstory elements, but not always. A character could be born a bastard regardless of nurture factors.

  • SOCIAL REACTION PROFILE: How do they react to others in social situations? You sketch a short anecdote that reveals this person by demonstrating how she or he behaves/reacts to a defined stimulus in the context of a social situation. Something has happened, something is said that creates tension, desire, confusion, ergo the anecdote portrays this person at their best or worst. HINT: CONFLICT!

  • THE CHARACTER ARC: Given your knowledge of the major complication and story, you flow-sketch the emotional and cognitive evolution of the character from beginning to end. If she or he starts off as a ignorant louse, where to go from there? Will they epiphanize, change, require repeated motivation? All major characters evolve as the story progresses. It‘s mandatory, whether in fiction or film. Consider historical factors, core wound factors, immediate circumstances, role of the character in the story.
You have work ahead if you hope to accomplish the act of great secondary characters. But approach the task with passion and appropriate doses of ambition. Strive to be unique within the bounds of convention. Give freedom to your imagination and be aggressive with its application.

We will all love you for it!

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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