Because memoirists can’t change what happened and who is involved in the particular memoir slice of life story they are telling, it’s all about what they choose to show the reader about the secondary characters in the memoir and what they choose to leave out. And whatever the memoirist tells or shows needs to be explained through the lens of the protagonist.
Secondary characters grow and change within the story arc of the protagonist in fiction or memoir. You don’t want just plot puppets, characters used to move the story forward without any background or desires of their own. All characters think they’re the hero of their own story according to Lisa Cron in her Story Genius course. But when you’re crafting a story, you want the protagonist driving the change within the story, not the secondary characters.
In memoir, the other characters are real life people. And the reason why they are in the story is to amplify and support the protagonist’s transformational arc of change. The reader needs to get a sense of what the secondary characters are about and what their specific agendas are. They are real people with real lives. The memoirist can’t change anything about their real lives or she’s writing fiction—not memoir.
In my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, my husband and our children play an informative role in helping me and hindering me in my attempt at college. I felt like a specimen under a microscope with not only my own family watching to see how I handle college, but also my mother and siblings. I felt like everyone was waiting for me to fail.
Like in many families, my five children are all different. But as the protagonist in my memoir, I not only need to distinguish each of my children for the reader, I also need to remember to include only what matters about their lives to the story I am telling, my journey through college, my understanding of what education is all about. When I talk about distinguishing each child, I don’t mean what they look like. I’m talking about their personalities, how they act, what’s important to them and how that affects me the protagonist in the memoir.
For instance, my second daughter Michelle is the family brainiac. Every family seems to have one! But what does that mean to Victoria in the memoir story. It means that even at a young age, Victoria relies on Michelle as a family [and later college classwork] sounding board. But because Michelle is young and inexperienced in the beginning of Victoria’s college journey, Michelle still wants Mom’s attention, still needs to be individually noticed within the family.
Marie, the oldest, is special needs. She consumes most of Victoria’s time and is the impetus for Victoria to begin college. Marie can process only one thing at a time. Victoria has trouble remembering this and frequently becomes frustrated.
My husband Bill’s task in the memoir story is to be the voice of reason. He tries to get Victoria to stop and listen to others, a very difficult job as Victoria’s always short on time. He feels Victoria is consumed by her studies [true], thus taking too much time away from family, increasing his workload, and denying him “couple time.”
Bill’s job is to counter what father had said to Victoria. Bill needs to change what is ingrained in Victoria, that she’s not good enough for college/not smart enough for college. He, along with other secondary characters, chips away at Victoria’s misbelief that she’s inferior to those who attend or attended college. Victoria can do whatever she sets her mind to—even if she needs to study/learn differently or take longer to do so, like Marie.
My son William, the middle child, is smart, but needs to be watched to be sure he does all his assignments. He’s laid-back, not high-strung like Victoria. During Victoria’s college years, he has a calming effect on her. But he, too, wants his time with Mom.
The family is used to having Victoria’s time. She doesn’t mind. This is her life. But if Victoria wants to succeed in college, things would need to change because she still learns differently, like her daughter Marie, and needs to play catch-up with the more traditional college student.
*Please feel free to offer comments or ask questions about my secondary characters. This helps me to move forward on my memoir.*
Whether it’s memoir or fiction, each secondary character needs to have a specific personality, a reason to be, that benefits the main storyline. As the writer, you include only the facets of secondary characters’ lives that pertain to the story you are telling.
Once again, I’d like to thank Jennie Nash of Author Accelerator and Lisa Cron for helping me to understand these concepts in my memoir.
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32 thoughts on “Secondary Characters in Fiction or Memoir #AuthorToolboxBlogHop”
One of the things which intrigues me about your secondary characters is the way you manage to speak of yourself and them in the third person.
I've come across novelists who can't separate themselves from the characters they've created. That must be even harder for you, writing memoir about yourself and your real-life family. It also requires a degree of self-awareness most of us lack. Well done!
You may have already got this in the memoir, but does Marie have aspirations at this time in your life? Does Bill have anything important to him besides work and family, or is he like my dad with no hobbies at the moment. Work is his life. Great post!
I try to let the whole character shine through otherwise they seem more cardboard then flesh. But that's me. 🙂
Anna from elements of emaginette
This is cool! I don't write memoirs, but it's great to learn about it from another perspective! Thanks for sharing 🙂
It's always fun for me to read about you writing a memoir. I would never have the courage to do it. Good for you!
Clear and distinct personalities for our characters, whether fiction or memoir, is a must. It makes them unique and helps our readers to connect to them.
I can only imagine what it must be like to have a family of 5 and go to college. I am sure there is a plethora of fantastic stories to explore and motives to decipher.
It must be a challenge incorporating secondary characters in your memoir when many of them are your family members. Doing this within the dynamics of a family must be a careful balancing act, yet when completed, also rewarding.
Thank you for sharing specific jobs of secondary characters. Looking more closely at them and their reasons for being in the story reminds me to respect them more in my own writing. Keep going with your memoir. Can't wait to read it.
Hi Victoria – having studied in my 40s … having not had a successful school time – and getting through … but without 5 kids and a husband – don't think I'd have coped … so admire you.
However now I wish someone had realised my latent talents and encouraged me early on – yet we go with the flow …
Even getting your memoir written in some format will be so helpful to many – though I know you'll want to do it as well as possible … it's so interesting following along with you – cheers Hilary
Thank you for your kind words, Iola. I truly appreciate them. One of the reasons memoir is so difficult to write is the fact that the writer needs to think of herself as a character in the real life story that is being told. She needs to have an internal and external struggle[s], antagonist[s] and secondary characters who are real people and a real live outcome to those struggles. Yikes! I'm scaring myself. Gosh! I hope I can do this.
It is always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. I so appreciate all you do to help your fellow writer. Enjoy your weekend!
Marie likes to dance and sing, but she's a follower. She sang in choir at school and church. Gosh! With five children, we had all we could do just to keep up with the kids. Bill always planned all our family camping trips. He liked to golf, but didn't have much time. Bill and Marie are my movie bugs.
Thanks so much for your kind comment here at Adventures in Writing. They are greatly appreciated. Enjoy your weekend!
Great perspective on secondary characters. Thanks!
Definitely let the "whole character shine through," Anna, as it applies to the story you are trying to tell.
It's always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. Thanks for your note! Enjoy your weekend!
Hello and welcome to Adventures in Writing, JM. Thanks so much for stopping by. The information I shared applies to secondary characters in all genres. Secondary characters need to be fully fleshed out, but you only include what pertains to the story you are trying to tell.
Thanks for your note here at Adventures in Writing. Please visit again.
Thanks for your words of encouragement, Kristina. I sure hope I can do this. It is always a pleasure seeing you here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your weekend!
I couldn't have said it better, Chrys. Thanks so much for all you do to assist your fellow writers. And thanks for your note on Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your weekend!
Isn't there, Erika? To encapsulate it in a nutshell: college with five kids in tow was not easy.
So good to see your cheery face on Adventures in Writing. Thanks for your comment. Enjoy your weekend!
Um…I hope so, D.R. We shall see. The kids understand what I'm trying to do at this point in their lives with my memoir. I so hope it works.
Thanks for your words of encouragement here at Adventures in Writing. I truly appreciate them. All best to you, sir.
Thank you so much for your kindness, Dawn. I certainly need the encouragement. Secondary characters are an intricate part of any story.
All best with your own writing. Thanks for your note here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your weekend!
You are so right, Hilary. All we can do is "go with the flow" in life. Thanks for your kind words. I truly need them. I always look forward to your comments at Adventures in Writing. All best to you, my dear!
My pleasure, Lauricia! And thank you for your kind words. I truly appreciate your note here at Adventures in Writing. Enjoy your weekend!
Wait a second. Back up–5 kids! That can't be possible and still survive.
You have a really good understanding about all the characters in your memoir, Victoria – about their importance to the story, about their personalities, and how to incorporate what helps the story forward. I can see in this post how important your team was on the road to success or in balancing Victoria.
It is my belief, though, that to really do all the characters justice, they would have to write their parts themselves. Since the writer is the protagonist, we can only reflect in our stories what we believe the secondary characters think or assume what they mean. There are the facts, of course, but memoirs are always a tad subjective. 🙂
Many days, Jacqui, I thought the same thing. Trust me!
Welcome to Adventures in Writing! And thanks so much for your note. I truly appreciate it. Please stop by again!
First I'd like to thank you, Liesbet, for your kind words. I truly need and appreciate them. As a writer, I'm always wondering if my writing is good enough.
And second, you are absolutely correct. Memoirs ARE subjective. The entire story is about the protagonist and how everything [that memoirist includes] affects the protagonist. Memoir is about how what happens affects the writer, and the writer needs to interpret what everything means to her for the reader. It's very subjective. And it's very difficult.
Thanks again for your vote of confidence. I always look forward to your comments here at Adventures in Writing. All best to you!
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Hello and welcome to Adventures in Writing, Piseth! Thanks for your note. All best to you.
Your post resonated with me in that I, too, was late getting my college degree. The fortunate things about the timing was that my daughter was an adult and not in the home, husband was very supportive, it was an accelerated program, and I love school! Our jobs were dissimilar shift work, which in my case was the reason for having to delay college. I did not have the opportunity after high school graduation. I think attaining that degree was the boost to my writing aspirations which resulted in my first book, a memoir of my life up to beginning high school. I was apprehensive as to how my siblings (7 at the time) would feel about it, but they loved it and have been my biggest supporters. Thank you for sharing your journey. I wish you much success.
Hello and welcome to Adventures in Writing, Sylvia. I'm finding more people who have waited to attend college for various reasons. Bravo to you for attempting an accelerated program and succeeding! Don't know if I could do that. I'm so glad your husband was supportive. This truly helps us continue and be successful when our loved ones are understanding.
Thanks so much for your kind words. Please visit Adventures in Writing again.