Secondary Characters: The Powerhouse in the Background
By Vanitha Sankaran
June 20, 2023


In a recent bid to pull out some old diary entries for a video journalism class, I came across some notes from a middle school Creative Writing class that had this to say on secondary characters:

Every character is the protagonist in his own mind.

This advice has stayed with me over the years. Naturally, we all aspire to craft multifaceted characters with intricate backstories, personal challenges, and dreams of their own. Yet, it can be a daunting task to strike the right balance when exploring details that don’t significantly impact the plot or character arcs. When I wrote Watermark, I had secondary characters but they were always in the background. Supercilious leaders, Inquisitive priests–they had their own agendas but were relegated to offscreen antics. I have tried to write true secondary characters since, but I have always been hampered by that childhood lesson.

Until I realized this:

While all characters may be protagonists in their own stories, they cannot all be protagonists in your story.

Consider Ken Follet’s masterpiece, The Pillars of the Earth—an epic saga boasting a cast of characters that may initially seem overwhelming. Each character perceives themselves as the protagonist, yet the story revolves around Tom Builder and his lifelong ambition to construct a magnificent cathedral at Kingsbridge. This pursuit transcends personal glory or recognition; it is driven by a profound sense of purpose and the belief that the cathedral will bring prosperity, unity, and spiritual fulfillment to the community. This audacious endeavor in itself generates abundant drama.

Nevertheless, the story gains immeasurable depth through the various secondary characters and their interactions with Tom. They challenge his views, introduce complexity, and offer diverse perspectives on the book’s underlying themes of ambition, corruption, faith, and love. Take, for instance, Aliena of Shiring and Jack Johnson—two secondary characters who share Tom’s dream of erecting the grand cathedral. Aliena, hailing from nobility, possesses motivations distinct from Tom’s; she seeks to restore her family name and wealth but suffers from a lack of agency as a woman. Similarly, Jack Johnson, though equally ambitious, is influenced by his enigmatic origins and uncertain place within his family, shaping the choices he makes. These characters are entwined with Tom’s dreams with their individual circumstances adding to the richness of the world.

In my current work, tentatively titled “Sandalwood and Rose,” I introduce Chandana, a young girl trying to secure funds to fulfill her late mother’s aspiration of reviving a classical dance form in India during the post-colonial era. The secondary characters in my story are also dancers, but their motivations stem from their unique circumstances. I have:

Viji, Chandana’s closest confidante, faces the challenge of reconciling her desire to dance across the entirety of India with her father’s wishes of relocating the family to a foreign land;

Rosabel, who serves as a foil to Chandana, perceives dance solely as a means to attain power, particularly to gain the attention of her overbearing mother; and Nira, a transgender outcast, reclaims her true identity through a different style of dance altogether.

All of these characters are connected through dance, which makes their individual stories relevant to both Chandana and her own goals. Determining how much of their individual stories to include in the final manuscript is still something I struggle with, but at least I have a path now to making secondary characters more than mere props to the story. It’s a challenge I’m excited to take on!

Vanitha Sankaran

Written by Vanitha Sankaran

Vanitha Sankaran writes historical fiction as well as young adult fantasy. Her award-winning debut historical novel WATERMARK explores the world of papermaking in the Middle Ages. She is serving her fifth term on the Board of the Historical Novel Society of North America and serves as a DEI coordinator for her local chapter of the SCBWI. Find out more at

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    A progatonist in their own stories! So true. Will be sharing =—->


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