Lessons from ‘The Office’

We’ve discussed the main character and the antagonist in previous posts. Let’s talk about secondary characters. The novice writer will have some key decisions to make when it comes to secondary characters. How many do you need? What will they do? How will they relate to the main character? A solid number of secondary characters will enhance the story, but too many will detract from it.

When deciding about secondary characters, think about your favorite TV show. You have the star, the co-star and a supporting cast (your secondary characters). Let’s take The Office for example. The main character (at least until this season) was the hilarious, bumbling Michael Scott. His Number Two was Dwight Shrute, who might qualify as an antagonist. Then you have the under-achieving, but endearing Jim and Pam. That’s a pretty strong group of characters so far, but what really gives The Office its staying power is the wonderful oddball collection of secondary characters: Creed, Stanley, Andy, Toby, Kelli, Daryl, Ryan, Meredith, Phyllis, Kevin, Angela, and Oscar.

These characters have provided some terrific story lines. There was the story arc involving Ryan’s meteoric rise and fall at Dunder Mifflin that took place over several episodes. What gave that story line its strength was that the writers tied it back to Michael Scott, the show’s focal point. In subsequent episodes, Ryan returns and takes a low-level position at Dunder Mifflin and then shows his loyalty to Michael by joining him when Michael leaves to start his own paper company. It’s the same in fiction writing. Secondary characters add depth and diversity to your story, but you must be careful to tie their actions to the main character and the overall story. Like subplots, secondary characters become a distraction unless the author links them to the main story.

Here are some questions to consider when creating secondary characters:

  • How many secondary characters do I need to make the story work?
  • How do the secondary characters relate to the main character?
  • What is the purpose of each secondary character?
  • What does each secondary character add to the story?
  • Can the story do without a secondary character?
  • Does the secondary character improve or detract from the story?

In my first novel, there was a secondary character named Christine Farragher. The main character, John Sykowski, had two main love interests during his teen-age years at the summer resort where he spent a week with his family. Christine was his girlfriend back home. Her main purpose in the story was to show John some truths about his character flaws. That’s why she was in the story. When my first draft weighed in at 125,000 words, I needed to make substantial cuts. I could have cut out the Christine character, but I ultimately decided she was too important to the story. I did cut 20,000 words, but Christine is still in the story.

Too few secondary characters can sink a story. Unless you are an incredibly talented or seasoned writer, it’s difficult to develop and sustain a full-blown story with just one or two characters in it. When you come up with an idea for a novel, open your mind to as many possibilities as you can. Some sources of secondary characters include:

  • Siblings. Give your main character a brother or sister she doesn’t get along with and let the sparks fly.
  • Spouses, ex-spouses, lovers and ex-lovers. These can add spice to your story.
  • Teachers or mentors. These can serve a great purpose in any story. Think of what Professor Dumbledore did for Harry
    Potter.
  • Friends. Be careful here. Throwing out the names of too many friends bogs down the narrative and confuses the reader. A few colorful and well-drawn friends can enliven your story.
  • Visitors. This is another area where the writer needs to exercise extreme care. A visitor who pops into town and happens to fulfill a specific wish of a character will come across as contrived. A visitor who sees the characters and situation from her point-of-view can bring
    an objective, outside perspective to a novel at a key turning point.

A final word of advice: in your first draft, don’t be afraid to let your imagination run when creating secondary characters. You can always cut them out of your later drafts, but it’s harder to add a secondary character to an existing draft.

How do you approach the development of secondary characters? How many is too many? Too few?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Lessons from ‘The Office’

  1. Very insightful post. The Office is a great study on secondary characters. I’m still learning but what I’ve noticed about my secondary characters is that they often add a level of conflict/tension for my main character. Nothing’s easy for the poor guy.

    • Nancy,
      Thanks for your feedback. What I didn’t mention was that in my second novel (first draft completed) I made the mistake of having too few secondary characters. This puts a tremendous burden on your main character and other major characters. It also limits your plot possiblities. Thanks again and I will definitely check out your blog.

      Chris

  2. My serious writing, and also my written way too fast blog writing, have very few secondary characters, mainly because when i read a book i get irritated by extraneous detail and transient characters. And my own memory demands that I keep it simple. What you wrote made sense, I have pushed the wee follow button so i can read some more thank you.. c

    • Thanks for your comment. Choosing the right number and mix of secondary characters is a tricky business. My rule of thumb is: does the secondary character support the main story? Thanks for following my blog.

      Chris

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