Even if you’re writing a nonfiction book, you’re going to need to talk about people, whether it’s to illustrate your points with made-up examples or to relate true anecdotes from your own life. The people in these segments, real or not, are characters in your book.

If your nonfiction book is more of a narrative, relating a series of real events to the reader, you’ll want to develop them the same way a fiction writer develops their made-up people. (See the fiction section below.) If you’re writing a more instructional nonfiction book, you don’t need as much detail, but you still want the people in your anecdotes or examples to feel real.

Here are a few easy ways to add a touch of realism to the characters who appear in your book. Try to apply one or two of these to each person you describe. Whenever that character appears in your book, use these details to help the reader remember who they are.

1. Describe something unique about their appearance–a facial feature, something they wear, an object they carry around, or an unusual hair color.

2. Give them a habit–fiddling with their glasses, clearing their throat, tilting their head to one side, etc.

3. Make their speech more or less formal than everyone else’s. (See last week’s post about narrative tone for help with this.) Alternatively, give them a catchphrase.

Your challenge for this week is to write out one example or anecdote for your book, using the above strategies to differentiate the people in the story. Try to make the example at least 300 words long.

As always, if you have questions or concerns, share them in the comments! Also, if you have another strategy for identifying characters, feel free to share it with the other participants!

*This Week’s Word Count*
Nonfiction: 600
Your book is as long as: A newspaper featurette


Your protagonist from last week can’t support the entire story on their own. You need secondary characters to balance them out, provide support and obstacles, and draw out the protagonist’s personality.

This week, your challenge is to write a 500-word scene in which your protagonist meets one of your secondary characters for the first time. It can take place at any time during the story, or even before it begins.

You can use the list of questions from last week to flesh out your secondary characters, but there is one more piece of information you need to know about them: Why do they interact with the protagonist?

Whether they’re sidekicks, love interests, mentors, or even villains, your secondary characters need to have their own lives, independent from their relationships to the main character. If a character exists solely to provide a service to the main character, they are going to fall flat

Secondary characters spend a lot of time interacting with the protagonist. The question you need to answer for the reader is “why.” The answer to “why” draws from the characters’ past experiences, their goals, their emotional state, etc. Figure out your secondary characters’ motivations for relating to the main character, and you’ll have a good base from which to develop them into three-dimensional people. Here are some questions to help you out:

– Why do they hang out with the protagonist?
– What do they do in their down time?
– Who are their other friends?
– What are their life goals?
– Where is their family?
– What did they do before they met the protagonist?
– What do they plan to do once the protagonist achieves their goal in the story?

A Note about Villains/Antagonists

Every story needs a bad guy or two. While bad guys can take the form of the protagonist’s environment or even a part of themselves, chances are your story has another person filling the role.

Here’s the most important thing to remember about antagonists: In their world, they’re the hero. They’re the protagonist of their own story. They have goals and fears and ways of relating to other people that make sense to them. They think they’re doing the right thing. (Or if they don’t, they have a strong motivation for doing what they know is wrong.)

Give your antagonist motives for doing whatever they’re doing in the story, and convey why those motives are so important to them. Do they want to take over the world? Why? Where did they get the idea? What do they plan to do after they’re in charge of it? Are they after revenge? Why was the thing they’re avenging so important to them? Are they after money? What do they want to do with it? Why can’t they get it any other way?

The most interesting villains are those who are actually a little bit correct. They point out that the hero’s method of doing things doesn’t work very well, or that the hero is just as corrupt as they are, or that the world is falling apart–and they’re right. These are cliched things for bad guys to say, but when the story has shown that there’s some truth in them, suddenly the conflict between good and evil takes on a whole new depth. It makes the reader think. This won’t work for every story, but when it fits, it’s almost always a good thing.

A Note About Point of View

There are two standard ways of telling a story:

First-person: Your protagonist narrates the story. (“I went to the store and bought milk. While there, I thought about buying some eggs as well, but decided against it. The cashier looked tired when I approached.”) In first person, the story should never reveal information to the reader that is unavailable to the narrator. This includes other characters’ thoughts, what’s happening in a different room, pieces of other characters’ back-stories, etc. This sort of information needs to be revealed through dialogue with other characters who are privy to the details you want to share.

Third-person: An outside source narrates the story. (“Joe went to the store. While there, he thought about buying some eggs as well, but decided against it. The cashier looked tired when he approached.”) The rules are the same: For any given section, pick a character to follow. The narration in that section should only reveal information available to that character, meaning other characters’ thoughts are off-limits. Revealing the thoughts of multiple characters in the same section is called “head-hopping,” and most readers find it jarring. If you want to show multiple characters’ perspectives, do so in separated sections, or even separate chapters.

If you have any questions about character archetypes or how to create three-dimensional characters, share them in the comments!

*This Week’s Word Count*
Fiction: 500
Your book is as long as: A newspaper featurette

5 thoughts on “BIYC: Creating Secondary Characters

  1. The part about third person is very relatable to me right now, because I’ve been reading Dune and I’ve noticed the narrator “head-hops” between different characters’ thoughts ALL THE TIME. And yes, it is a little jarring. :p


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