Why are secondary characters so much easier to write?

Philip Marlowe

Silk’s Post #44 – We asked ourselves this question more than once in our Whistler discussions. It should be no surprise that most of the characters who got a few rotten tomatoes thrown at them in our 5 Writers retreat were protagonists. For some reason, many writers with a bit of experience seem to sail through the test of developing brilliant, interesting secondary characters with ease. But when it comes to the stars of the show – our beleaguered, ever-striving protagonists – well, they don’t always shine quite as brightly as they need to.

This has led, more than once, to suggestions that the writer being critiqued change the protagonist from the current one (who seems to fall short) to a secondary character (who everyone loves to pieces). But I started thinking … how soon after assuming the protagonist role would that fabulous secondary character succumb to the same problems, dilemmas and shortcomings as the current protagonist?

Is it just that we writers are daunted by the pressure of writing a protagonist that readers will immediately bond with? Do we invest too much of our own personalities? Do we try to make them so different and memorable, so “larger than life”, that they come off as phoney baloneys? Do we make them too perfect, then graft on some personal quirks and failings that, instead of humanizing them, feel like bad plastic surgery? Do we attempt to make them all things to all people, thus ensuring that they fail miserably?

Or is the problem really the inherent difficulties any protagonist has to overcome to play the lead role?

Let’s face it: “the buck stops here”, as Harry Truman once famously proclaimed, could easily be the motto for any novel’s protagonist. These characters really have to be up to carrying the load. As discussed in earlier blog posts, we writers make them suffer endlessly. And we require them to make themselves irresistible to readers, bond with them, entertain them, elicit their sympathy while simultaneously earning their respect. If that’s not enough, we also demand that they perform feats – mental, physical and emotional – that most of us could never accomplish ourselves in a million years.

You want to live, Mr. Protagonist? Well then face down this heavily armed evil villain! Hahahaaah! And that’s just a simple feat compared to the things we force our protagonists to do to survive … or to rescue the baby, or stop the horrible event that’s about to happen, or defeat the enemy, or bring the guilty to justice, or save the world from destruction, or just keep body and soul together.

But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? Whether our protagonists succeed or fail in attaining the hugely challenging goals we set for them, it is through their actions when faced with difficulties that they make our stories work.

The very best ones leap right out of the books where they were born and into popular culture to become iconic characters with a life of their own. For example, the mystery-suspense-thriller genres have a particularly rich array of enduring icons – each of them unique – from Nancy Drew to Philip Marlow, George Smiley, V.I. Warshawski, Travis McGee, Sam Spade, Stephanie Plum, Jack Reacher and my personal favourites Dave Robichaux and Harry Bosch.

These characters are not “types”. They soar above types. No matter how often someone tries to create a “Philip Marlowe type” for their protagonist, there is – and always will be – only one Philip Marlowe.

So how do we get there? How do we create the DNA of a memorable protagonist? In our Whistler critiques, our protagonists were subject to potshots from all directions. Most of the criticisms suggested that the protagonist was not quite up to the challenge in some way.

My protagonist sometimes behaved like a nitwit. Helga had two apparent protagonists, and the one everyone related to best was not the primary one. Joe had three main characters, and got dinged for not making it clear which one was the real protagonist. Karalee had two main characters, whose stories didn’t braid together early enough in the plot. Paula had a clear protagonist who was sometimes hard to empathize with. None of us got it perfectly right in the first draft.

The bottom line: being a protagonist is a hard job. (Yes, anti-heroes do seem to follow different rules). You have to be larger than life, but down to earth in some way. You have to be consistent at heart to have character integrity, but you need a character arc that demonstrates change and growth. You have to be likeable, but not goody-goody or bland. You have to be driven, but not uncaring or totally obnoxious. You can be a rule-breaker, but not immoral. You have to be self-directed, but not ego-centric. You have to be deep, but not remote or unreachable. You can be a clever scamp, but not a malevolent scoundrel. I could go on.

I think there should be a Nobel Prize for wildly successful protagonists. They’re like national (or international) treasures. Imagine creating the equivalent of a James Bond. What an achievement. And what a franchise.

No wonder secondary characters are so much easier, and arguably more fun, to create. They have a much easier job to do.

I think it’s the heavy lifters that really challenge us as writers.

3 thoughts on “Why are secondary characters so much easier to write?

  1. I think I’ve been guilty of every point you raise in Paragraph 3…. I’m striving for real progress on this front in WIP #3. Time will tell if I can succeed!

  2. You nailed that one, Silk. Guilty as charged. Most of us. I think it may have to do with an author’s temptation to create their major characters in their own image, or at least endow them with the attributes they would like to possess themselves in real life. Isn’t there some truth in the theory that we write autobiographies and disguise them as fiction?

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