Secondary characters want attention too

Karalee’s Post #41

“Stop! Listen to me. Why don’t you calm down?”

Most of us have used these expressions or similar ones. I know I have, and it’s usually in the middle of a heated debate or argument or misunderstanding. It’s the way we try to stay in control of a situation, and of course the person we’re talking to usually doesn’t pay heed. Our brains are too worked up and our bodies tensed and full of adrenalin. We’re in reaction mode not listening mode. 

Feeling this tension reminds me of a documentary I saw about a group of monkeys during the mating season. (Yes, my mind often makes weird associations, just ask my 5Writer friends.)

The dominant monkey was busy keeping the lesser males at bay, probably using monkey talk much like the above, while at the same time taking every opportunity available to impregnate the females in the troop. Then in sneaks a quieter male in the background who has his way with the females around the periphery that haven’t caught the attention of big daddy yet. And voila! A mix of DNA into the troop that adds to the health and character mix of the offspring.

Now the screaming  dominant monkey caught my attention, but the quiet male that got his own way did too.  I found myself smiling and cheering on the underdog (undermonkey?)  and relating to him more than the head honcho.

If I extrapolate this to represent the protagonist (dominant monkey) and a secondary character (quiet monkey getting his bit too), I would definitely find it more interesting to write the secondary character.


  • the secondary character is using his own intelligence to succeed in outsmarting the dominant guy.
  • I find the situation humorous.
  • in his own way the secondary character is adding to the situation and changing the outcome of the story.
  • the protagonist can’t manage complete control, which leaves openings for the secondary character to make a difference, or to challenge the protagonist who will change his behavior in some way.
  • it’s fun for me to think about different ways to challenge the protagonist, and this in turn puts me in a happy mood and I relax and let the creative area of my brain take over.

Therein lies the golden key for me; the last point above, letting the creative area of my brain take over. I agree with Silk in that it often seems easier and more fun creating a second character, and therefore it’s no wonder he/she can push the limelight away from the protagonist.

Take the Wizard of Oz. Why doesn’t the Tin Woodman or the Scarecrow or the Lion take over Dorothy’s story? I’m sure they all have very interesting stories that could captivate readers and as a child I completely related to the Tin Woodman trying to find a heart. The reason the Wizard of Oz stayed on track is that the author L. Frank Baum kept to Dorothy’s quest to find her way home. Although Baum probably had great fun writing all the secondary characters, he didn’t let them override Dorothy’s adventure.

I don’t know if Baum struggled more with writing Dorothy’s story line, but I wonder if I sit back and relax and have more fun with my protagonist, that possibly she (or he) will command full attention without having to shout or bully through the crowd with elbows thrust out? If I stop working so hard to make my protagonist suffer so much or be so strong/wise/flawed that she has no choice but to stand up and tell the world instead of being quieter in the background and showing how she thinks and reacts to the world, would I have a more compelling story? 

Can writing be reduced to merely having fun?

I say yes and no.

Like many things in life, hard work reaps the reward and in writing much of the hard work is in character development as well as in the setting and story line. Knowing your character(s) inside out, knowing where the story takes place in great detail, and knowing the plot line are all imperative in creating a great story.

That’s the necessary background work.  

Once that is done it is time to sit down and let my creative mind loose and have fun. Maybe it’s time I let my protagonist challenge one of my secondary characters and see what happens!

5 thoughts on “Secondary characters want attention too

  1. Great discussion Karalee. Writing in a relaxed way where the characters can “have their way” and influence the plot is a great head space to be in. Some writers like to do this in the first draft and see where things go, while I think others prefer to have the storyline “fixed” before they let their characters experiment and cavort about. The thing I find so interesting is the way characters really do take on a life of their own and behave almost independently of the author.

    • It is fascinating when I’m in the creative headspace and characters seem to write their own scenes. With my growing experience and knowing where the story needs to go, I strive to have characters express themselves yet stay within the story parameters.

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