Herding Cats: Developing Interesting Secondary Characters and Keeping Them in Line


March 30, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

From cheezburger.com. Where all the wild things are.

Do you ever have days where wrangling the cast of your novel feels like herding cats?

As a pantser (definition), I sit down at my laptop, write, and see what my characters do. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, sometimes this begets unexpectedly awesome writing, other times it’s a hairy mess. I’ve come back to review sections of my work and wondered how the hell my cast got so out of character.

I still like the process for the way it opens possible avenues for the story to follow that it wouldn’t if I had tried to stick to a straight outline, though. Plus, it gives me a starting point for revisions. Oftentimes, I can go back to revise with my character cards in hand and make the original version something that works.

Whoa, hey! What’s a Character Card?

Character Cards are a tool I picked up from Todd A. Stone’s Novelist’s Boot Camp. Now, I don’t follow all of his advice (he’s a plotter and adamant we should be, too), but character cards are advice I can get behind.

Character Cards are the lasso that will help you wrangle your rampaging cats.

I keep a Character Card for all my characters that have any significant amount of page time. Protagonists, antagonists, and all supporting characters. The idea is that I can refer back to the card when writing and revising to remind myself if this is truly the way this character should be acting in a scene. Otherwise I find it all too easy to end up with my characters behaving too rationally or, worse, making the choices that I would in a given scenario instead of being their own entities.

I find these cards especially important for supporting characters, because these are the critters who really add depth and texture to a novel.

Here’s what I include:







*Character Models: I tend to pick out actors or celebrities who look like my characters to help me envision what my character looks like.

*Identifying Features: A solid piece of advice I’ve found in multiple resources on creating memorable characters is to give them a distinctive feature of some sort. It could be clothing, speech patterns, favorite food or drink, their transportation, physical markings like scars or tattoos, smells, or mannerisms.

Race: This may not apply to you. I include it because I’m writing fantasy where ‘human’ is not the only option.

Affiliations: This is where I define who the character is loyal or beholden to, which is important because their political and social alliances will affect their actions.

*Magical Skills: While I also write-up another document laying out how magic works in the world of my novel and what the boundaries are, this is where I describe the abilities the individual character has. For non-fantasy writers, you could modify this section to include mundane skills the character has such as gourmet cooking, martial arts or weapons specialties, handyman skills, languages they speak, etc.

*Basic Personality Traits: This one is crucial. Think about the major defining personality traits for the character and list them. Don’t forget to include both positive and negative aspects.

Personality Detailed: Here is where you explain what you mean by each of the traits you listed. Explain how the personality traits you chose reveal themselves in the character’s life. You may even want to think of specific examples of how they would react in an everyday situation based on that trait.

For example: If the character is impatient, how would they react if stuck in a long line at the DMV or finds themselves in the express line at the grocery where the person in front of them has a full cart that’s well over the fifteen item limit?

Basic Backstory: The level of detail here is up to you, but you may want to delve deeply for your major characters. Ask yourself: Where does this character come from? What past events have shaped this character’s life? Who are the important people in their life? What was their childhood like? What about their education? Who are their past lovers? What’s their relationship with their family?

Current Scenario: What’s going on with this character right now or when we meet them in the novel?

*Character Objective: What is this character’s primary goal or purpose in the story. What is their raison d’être?

Ok, I know what you’re thinking: “Kira, are you insane? All of that info won’t fit on an index card.” You’re right, of course. This would probably be better described as a Character Document. Depending on how important the character is to the story, you may not want or need all of this detail. Consider, though, how much rounder and more interesting even your secondary characters will be if you’ve gone through this exercise.

You may at this point just use your Character Documents as references while writing and revising, but I sometimes find that too cumbersome. So, now take the most important elements from the Character Document and transfer them onto index cards for quick reference. The elements I suggest you include are starred in the above list.

Again, I’m sure you can see how this type of thing would be helpful for developing main characters, but I would encourage you to do so for your secondary characters, too. Secondary characters can make or break a novel. Just think: what would Sherlock Holmes be with Dr. Watson? Dr. Who without his companions?

For more detailed information on how to create memorable secondary characters, here are some of my favorite links:







2 thoughts on “Herding Cats: Developing Interesting Secondary Characters and Keeping Them in Line

  1. cptam1947 says:

    I am a pantser also. I love discovering who my characters are as I go. Once I see them in action I add scars, a bad habit, or a hitch in their personality. I look for everyday people around me to base the look of my characters on. If I relied on Hollywood everyone would be Brad Pitt, Justin Timberlake, Anne Hathaway, Charlize Theron or a young Sean Connery. If I could ever be gay, it would be with Sean.

  2. […] I’m enjoying her writing style AND she has some useful tips. This particular one is on tracking your characters and ensuring that they hold to their particular physical, emotional, and psychological […]

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