Young adult is typically written in first person, giving the author the ability to reveal the main character through interiority. This combined with snappy dialogue leads to fleshed-out main characters readers can root for. But writers don’t have that advantage when it comes to secondary characters, sometimes leaving these characters flat and uninteresting, especially in contrast to the main character. Here are some tips I use to make secondary characters feel every bit as compelling.
Individual description is the first place where most writers start. It’s important to avoid laundry list descriptions of physical attributes—these make characters read like caricatures. Focus on one or two traits at a time and make these traits specific and unique to the character.
The Items that Fill Your Character’s World
While individual description is a great place to start, it’s usually not enough. Next, consider the items that fill a secondary character’s world, such as their clothing and possessions. Ask yourself these questions: What’s inside their locker, car, backpack, purse? What’s on their grocery list or for sale at their garage sale? The more unexpected, the better! Maybe you have a secondary character who carries a briefcase whenever he meets with the debate team. One day he opens it and all that’s inside is a bottle of gin. By having your main character noticing this, you give your reader clues about the secondary character without being quite as direct.
The trouble with description is that it’s often boring, leading readers to skim. Description that’s filled with movement has a better chance of holding a reader’s interest. We all know to avoid be verbs such “am,” “are,” and “is,” but we don’t often consider the value of strong verbs when it comes to description. Don’t let your characters just exist in their world. Let them move through their world. Place objects in their hands and let them react.
Tools in Action
Here’s an example of a bad description:
“Michael is tall with brown hair cut into a crew cut, blue eyes, broad shoulders, long legs. He’s wearing a jersey, a baseball cap, and Chucks.”
This laundry-list description is flat, poorly written, and lacking movement.
Here’s an example of a better description:
“Sloane wears an old ripped tee shirt every Sunday morning to the dance studio. The Pistols, it says on the front. Jenny next door told me the Pistols were Sloane’s father’s band before he left town. Sloane watches herself in the mirror whenever she dances—but never when she wears that shirt.”
This description isn’t perfect, but unlike the bad description above, it avoids be verbs, has movement, and uses an item within Sloane’s world. Most importantly, this is the kind of description that tells us not only about Sloane but about who she is in the eyes of the main character.
Using these tips, a writer can begin to create fully-fleshed-out secondary characters that feel every bit as lively and compelling as main characters. What are some of your tips for creating secondary characters?
Jessica Taylor is a young adult novelist who adores sleepy southern settings, unrequited love, and characters who sneak out late at night. She lives in Northern California with a sweet-yet-spoiled dog and many teetering towers of books.