Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Polly Iyer Talks About Secondary Characters

It is my great pleasure to bring you Polly Iyer.  She's a most interesting character in real life and she has Indie Published all five of her books.

I asked her about her background in illustration, and she told me that she started out as a free-lance illustrator for Women's Wear Daily and all the Fairchild Publications, covering New England. "Then when I moved to Atlanta, I still did some fashion illustration but moved into television story boards for product commercials. I can draw a hand holding a bottle of Spray 'n Wash from memory. :-)"

I'd love to do that, but my drawings are worse than stick figures. Seriously. Ask anyone who knows me.

Polly has done all her own covers with a
BFA from art school and 25 years as an illustrator
I'd say she was her own best choice!

Welcome Polly!


       After the first, oh, twenty or thirty pages of our manuscript (which we go over so many times, we can quote the words from memory), we, as writers, tend to concentrate on our main characters—the hero and/or/ heroine in whatever genre we’re writing.

       But what about secondary characters? In many books and movies the secondary characters are pivotal to the plot and to the main character, their yin to the other’s yang―Watson to Holmes, Robin to Batman, Ginger to Fred, to name a few. Many secondary characters build a following and are rewarded with their own mystery series. John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers and Robert Crais’s Joe Pike come to mind. Television has been famous for spinoffs, some successful, some not. That spinoff character has to be so strong that viewers crave more.

       Many series writers, whether cozy mysteries or police procedurals, create a fictional town or workplace with a continuing cast of characters—think Stephanie Plum, Joe Morelli, Ranger, and Lula; or the cops in John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport series. Those characters are the supporting players. They’re family, a team, and readers know them. Speaking of supporting roles, I bet everyone can name at least two from Gone with the Wind other than Scarlett and Rhett. Great secondary characters stay with us.

       Since I write in multiple points of view, I almost always create multiple storylines. That leaves me free to wander into the heads of my secondary characters. For that reason, I work hard to develop them as fully as I develop the leads. They may take up less space in my books, but I consider them almost as important. If you remember them over my main characters, more important.

       I’ve published five books, with another on the way—sounds like I’m giving birth, and in a way, I am. These books are my babies. They’ve been nurtured and fed everything I’ve learned and am still learning, but though we want readers to love our main characters, especially if they’re in a series, I’m thrilled when someone mentions that I’ve fleshed out the supporting cast.

       One secondary character in my book Murder Déjà Vu is probably my favorite. I knew what was going to happen to him right from the beginning. So does the reader, so I’m not giving anything away. But every time I went over that scene, I sobbed like a baby. I fell in love with him and didn’t really want to do what I was going to do. I was helpless, of course. His fate was cast in stone from the beginning.

       In my Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series―just two books―Diana’s father is really unlikeable. He’s a cocky con artist and a racist who pushed his young daughter into doing things she didn’t want to do strictly for money and notoriety. When Diana falls in love with an African American, old Galen Racine has a conniption. As much as we don’t like him, and I think most people won’t, he loves his daughter and she loves him. It’s tricky to write a character like him and leave some thread of humanity so readers feel what Diana feels. If they don’t, I haven’t done my job. I started to put Diana’s parents in the second book, Goddess of the Moon, but I couldn’t put my readers through him again. Or me. In the same book, Mind Games, the killer is evil incarnate, but readers have told me they actually felt sorry for him in the end. Those two characters made me believe I got them right to create such strong emotions.

        In Hooked, my biggest challenge was creating a woman with a very questionable past—she’s an ex-call girl—so that people didn’t hold that against her. But she’s a main character. Those offended will close the book and never get to Benny Cooper, the ex-hedge fund manager who runs a high-class bordello. He’s―well, there’s no other way to describe him other than a schlemiel. He’s addicted to sex, and that’s what gets him in trouble. Hopefully, he’ll make you laugh. His ex-hooker wife is also a piece of work. What a pair.

        For those of you reading this post who are writers, when you create your characters, do you put as much effort into those secondary characters as you do for the H/h?

        Do you give them tics, habits, and mannerisms? Do some of them speak in an identifiable way? Dress? Walk?

       If you don’t develop these individuals, think seriously about changing your ways. Every book highlights the main characters. A well-rounded book takes all the characters into consideration.

       Happy reading and writing, everyone, and remember:

          Her words were interspersed with nervous coughs. The woman was a basket case.

          He was thinking. She could always tell because he rubbed the back of his
          neck and measured his words.

         If she says “you know” one more time, I’m going to explode.

         Not many women could get away with pink hair, but it suited her.
         Etc., etc., etc.

Polly Iyer was born on the coast of Massachusetts. After studying at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, she traveled to Italy, lived in Atlanta, and now resides in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina in an empty nest house with her husband, a drooling mutt named Max, and Joey, the sweetest cat in the world.

 Writing novels turned into her passion after careers in fashion, art, and business. Now she spends her time being quite the hermit in comfortable clothes she wouldn't be caught dead wearing on the outside, while she devises ways for life to be complicated for her characters. Better them than her.


  1. Thank you for having me on your terrific blog today, Leslie. You gave me a chance to write about a subject near and dear.

  2. Polly,
    Welcome and thank you for being here today.

    I think Secondy Characters can be the most interesting, and fun to write.

    For some reason I have less trouble with them than my main hero/heroine.

    Maybe because they don't carry the story, but add spice/seasoning to it.

    I hear people saying, "she was a total bitch, and I ended up hating some I thought was at first awesome"...or..."I loved him, he was so funny, who wouldn't?"

    What do you guys think? Easier to write them, harder? More fun, less angst?


  3. I love the post, Polly, and I'm so with you on secondary characters. LOVE writing them. Sometimes they're easy, and I do grin when they appear full-blown. Other times I have to draw them out. But main characters could be a drag without those secondaries!

    Nancy Haddock

  4. Polly, I love your secondary characters--well, most of them. :-) They're distinctive and have unique traits; they definitely stand out.

    Some of mine seem to be born fully developed, but others take more effort. But like yours, they all have a mind of their own.

  5. LA, mine just grow out of the story. I have little control over any of my characters. I'm not sure secondary characters are harder to write or they just don't get much attention because writers concentrate on the leads. Big mistake, imo.

  6. Nancy, I'm a total pantser, so I rarely know who my secondary characters will be until they pop in and say hello. As I mentioned in the blog post, I have multiple storylines in all my books, and that makes it easier to have more characters. In my next release, I thought one character would be the lead, and he turned out to be a secondary character when I fell in love with the eventual hero. So it's always a surprise. Thanks for posting.

  7. Ellis, You have great secondary characters, and since I've read all your books, I know what I'm talking about. Your Jelly in Time of Death is a gem. I know you fell in love with him too.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Polly, I love Benny Cooper in HOOKED. He's a hoot in every scene we meet him. I agree that secondary characters can add real depth to a book. As you point out, in the case of parents, they often have had a large role in making our heroes and heroines the people they are. Good post.

  9. Thanks, Linda. Benny is a piece of work and perfect comic relief. He's one that came out fully formed. No matter how sleazy he is, you can't help liking him just a little. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. When you write in multiple POVs do you still have one main character? What I'm asking is, how do you define a secondary character? If I'm writing in a character's POV, I consider them main characters because I have to know their voice. Even if I know a character's voice, unless I write through that POV, he isn't a main character.

  11. To me, the main characters, and I judge them as H/h, are the focus of the story. In Hooked, it's Linc and Tawny. In Murder Deja Vu, it's Reece and Dana. There's no way to develop a secondary storyline without going into the heads of supporting players. What they do in that storyline will most likely impact the main characters and their storyline. Many times the secondary characters are the catalysts that move the story; other times they're the villains. What Benny does or doesn't do in Hooked is important to the story, for good or bad. If Hooked were a movie, Benny would be nominated for a supporting role.

  12. By the way, E.B., that was a great question.

  13. Hi E.B.,
    I would say in the majority of all writing, there are main characters, the one's who are impacted most by the events, the ones without whom, there would be a different story written.

    Secondary characters often create the catalysts to move the primary characters forward. As Polly said, they impact the main characters and thus the story line.

    In screenwriting, even in ensemble pieces, you have a main character or two. Usually the ones with the most to gain or lose. In a Rom Com, it's the couple who are the main characters, but we love the secondaries...they add so much to the movie, and cause the h/h so much trouble, give them direction and reveal so much about them.

    In my new story Stone of Heaven, I realized I could continue the secondary characters by giving them their own books. That was eye opening to me. (A duh moment to my friends:))

    I already have them fleshed out and now can make them the center of their own story.

    More books, more story lines, less (a bit less) development work.


  14. Polly, since I always write in first person, I can't report the thoughts or off-stage actions of secondary, and you've pointed out it's a real handicap. Sigh. Don't know I can ever move out of first person.

  15. Polly, since I always write in first person, I can't report the thoughts or off-stage actions of secondary, and you've pointed out it's a real handicap. Sigh. Don't know I can ever move out of first person.

  16. Polly, the character I have the most trouble writing is the killer. Although I don't write in his/her head, I have to have the emotions and motives down pat. That goes for the victim too. Like the one I'm writing right now - I tried killing off one character, but my killer wouldn't cooperate. He killed the first one without remorse, but he wouldn't have anything to do with the second, so that body is out of there. But the next one I tried, he agreed to kill, but he's very sorry. Which will impact what....

    Yeah, I'm more pantser than plotter, and I'm still at it.

    Love your post. It really got me thinking!

    Judy, I write in first person too. Tried third, didn't work. But I do get thoughts in through conversation, appearances, actions.

  17. You're right. The main characters are those affected by the actions of the secondary characters and their plot lines, which intersect with the main plot. Of course this means that one character who I thought was a main character isn't and a secondary character is now a main character, but then I only thought of him as secondary--the way he is written--he was a main character. Thanks--your answer changed the way I'm looking at my story.

  18. Judy and Norma, I tried writing in first person and couldn't do it. I found it too confining. I wanted to know what my other characters were thinking or planning. I think it's much harder to write multiple storylines in first because it is ALWAYS through one person's eyes. Bottom line is to write in your most comfortable way. Norma, those nasty characters just won't do what you want them to do sometimes, ornery critters.

  19. E.B., in the original manuscript of my next publication, Threads, I thought one character was going to be the love interest. I started the book from his point of view. By the time I got to the middle of the book, another character so enchanted me that he became the main character, and I had to restructure--i.e. rewrite--my whole book because you really can't open a book with secondary characters. That's why it's taken me 13 years to publish Threads. Oh, the plot is complicated too, maybe too complicated. Don't know. I'm sure readers will let me know.

  20. I keep thinking about my favorite movie supporting role, maybe of all time. We just watched for the tenth time, My Cousin Vinny, and I bet everyone thinks Marisa Tomei stole that movie. She won the supporting role for a female in a movie that year. She was pretty much an unknown, and her win surprised everyone, but it was well deserved. Agree?

  21. Thanks, Leslie Ann & Polly, on the timing of this blog as I flesh out my secondary characters and interview historical figures in my writing the sequel to my debut novel.

    In an interview with an agent, I was asked how my secondary characters fit into the story. Although I hadn't anticipated this question, I was ready with an answer because I had written all of my secondary characters with care as regarded the protagonist's goals, motivations, and conflict. That question is forever etched into my brain as I create my secondary characters and the traits unique to them.

    I hope you're happily writing, Polly, and I wish you the very best with your continuing journey.

    Lisa P.

    By the way, I'm glad there's someone else who's embarrassed by their work clothes. Thank goodness my hubby doesn't judge me by them--LOL!

  22. Lisa, you made my point about secondary characters. I'm glad agents and editors are paying attention to them and considering them an integral part of the manuscript. Great that you were ahead of the game.

    Writing sure does save on wardrobes. I could throw out most of my closet since I don't have to dre$$ up anymore. ;-)

  23. I usually write in 1st person, but am trying something new (to me) for a new mystery. I have dual heroines, and am writing the older one in 3rd person, the younger one in 1st person. I'm doing it for specific reasons, and I have seen the dual POV used by other authors to - imo - excellent effect. Hoping it works for me!

    Thanks again, Polly! And LA for hosting you!

    Nancy Haddock

  24. I've seen that done, Nancy, and it can be very effective. Since you normally write in first person, I'd be interested in finding out how you like writing in third and getting into two heads. Best of luck with your new challenge. Spreading your wings and trying something different is the best learning experience.

  25. Nancy,
    I'm intriqued with your first/erd person book. I love what you've told me about it and can't wait to see how it works.

    I have a cozy mystery series I've been dying, (opps wrong choice of words for a mystery) to write, and it would be SO much better if I could get into the heads of other characters.

    Keep us informed on how it goes.


  26. Lisa,
    I'd never had an agent ask about secondary characters. I think that's really interesting and I'm completely impressed that you had your answers ready!!


  27. Uh, Nancy,
    That should have read "first/third person book...."

    Sorry :)

  28. Hi Polly:

    My view was that secondary characters exist to support the mission: create the best story and overall reading experience. Whatever the story required of them, they were issued.

    I have had difference experience now that I am taking a Plottoing Bootcamp course online. As an assignment we had to fill out a chart of ten conflicts for each secondary character. What they wanted and what was stopping them from getting it. This exercise resulted in three secondary characters being more interesting than the hero and heroine. They could easily have their own books. But only I am going to know all this stuff about them. They are like icebergs to the reader. They still have to perform the mission of the story but they will do it now in a very different way.

    This has been a whole new way to create a story. I just have to keep reminding myself that just because I know a lot of stuff about my secondary characters, does not mean I have to use it. That’s the hard part. I have to keep my eye on the ball!


  29. Vince, whatever it takes to move the story along. In the end, the story has to capture the reader whether it's through the characters or the plot.

    I also think that genre makes a difference. In a thriller, the mission is the most important element, and the main character/s are really secondary to the plot. Think The DaVinci Code. We know little about the main character other than he's a professor. His job is to find the code.

    In a romance, developing the relationship between the H/h is what the book is about. We want to know everything about them, and sometimes that involves secondary characters to bring them together, but not always. Most romances, unless it's romantic suspense, has a single goal: a happy everafter.

    My feeling is that a book with a supporting cast creates a more realistic, well-rounded story. But then, as I mentioned, I always have more than one plot line. I don't think it's necessary to know everything about the secondary characters any more than what they contribute to the story as a whole. Actually, in a series, I don't want the reader to know everything about my main characters either, or else there's nothing left to learn about them.

    I like a book to be both plot driven and character driven. Pulling it off is another story.

    Thanks for your input, Vince.

  30. I'm finally home from my travels and catching up on the mail. What a great post from one of my favorite indie writers! I love your secondary characters! So glad I clicked over to read your post.

  31. Polly and LA,
    This is such a timely topic for me. I am revisiting a screenplay and found a secondary character lacking sparkle to the main character. Your subject matter, article and comments have been inspirational and extremely helpful in focusing my secondary's storyline.

    Huge thanks...

  32. Thanks for dropping by, Maggie. If anyone knows my secondary characters, it's you--and Ellis too--my favorite critique partners. You've both helped smooth them out.

  33. I'm happy if you've found my blog post helpful, Neringa. We get so enmeshed in our main characters and storyline that we sometimes forget the rest of the characters. Creating the cast is much like a recipe. Leave out an important ingredient, and the result is tasteless. Thanks for posting.