The Two Question Novel Quiz Part 5: Secondary Characters

Friends, we’re taking a brief respite from the Thesis Insanity to  
drop a quiz today. The insanity–though perpetually all-consuming for  
me–will return for you on Thursday. Know this.

Secondary characters are like the Chili’s appetizer Triple Dipper of the  
novel world. First, you’re not sure if you should even have them  
around, then you realize you like them, and by the end you kind of  
wish you hadn’t ordered the chicken tacos as your main course.  
Without secondary characters, your main characters will  
spend most of the book talking about dream sequences, looking in the mirror
and having flashbacks. So it’s important that you create full, well-rounded  
secondary characters to help carry the load. Although they don’t get the
same spotlight as the main act, they still need to feel, act, think, yell, and purchase  
Certificates of Deposit in a real, real way. Because if they don’t, not only  
will Michiko Kakutani not review your book for the NYTimes, she’ll  
probably light it on fire and post the video on Youtube.

Directions: Read the questions then take a permanent marker and  
circle the letter that best corresponds to your own book on your  
computer screen. If you are at an Internet Cafe the directions don’t  
change, they just become slightly more subversive.

1. For whatever reason, you keep including scenes in which your main  
character–a dude named Wendy– goes to his local watering hole,  
Trinity Gardens, to drown his sorrow in Appletini’s. The cocktail  
waitress there, Peter Pan, becomes an oft utilized secondary  
character. What details do you include to help shed light on Peter  
Pan’s life?

A. Peter Pan has “shimmering” black hair AND above average dental work.

B. Peter Pan wears a wedding ring at the bar during the week, but  
takes it off on the weekends. She also has a child carseat on the  
front passenger side of her yellow Mazda Miata.

C. Peter Pan always says, “I got you babe” when Wendy puts in his  
drink orders, probably because of her love of Sonny and Cher (RIP!). She has
a scar on her chin from an incident involving her ex-husband, who was a Hell’s  
Angel and she has the faded remains of a tattoo that says “Captain  
Ho–” someone on her left forearm. She wears purple contact lenses  
and tells men that they’re real, until they really get to know her or  
realize that no one has purple eyes.

D. Peter Pan is married to Wendy.

2. If someone who’d read your book kidnapped you and forced you at  
gunpoint to name all of your secondary characters and give brief  
bios, you would:

A. Feel very uncomfortable, albeit slightly flattered that they read  
your book.

B. Be able to name them and give some general characteristics, but  
then be forced to rely on the improv class you took on a lark during  
your semester abroad in Australia.

C. Whip through the bio’s, backgrounds, and mental makeup of all the  
characters in such a small but intense time period that the person  
who kidnapped you is overcome with emotions and asks you to lunch at  
Chili’s for a Triple Dipper. You (politely) decline.

D. Explain that you had no “secondary” characters. They’re all main  
characters in your heart. Then ask to be excused from the kidnapping
citing a technicality.

Answer Key:

Mostly A’s: Hmmm. You don’t so much know about your secondary  
characters as you do NOT know about them. Unsure as to whether or not  
you’d be able to give the police an accurate sketch if one of them  
hit you with their car. Mildly troubling.

Mostly B’s: You’re getting there, but you haven’t fully committed to  
loving your secondary characters, which begs some questions about  
commitment and other issues that you should lie to your significant
other about.

Mostly C’s: Yeah. You know your characters, have a good idea of  
what’s going on in the background of their lives, and remain non-
flattered when felons ask you to lunch. Take me to book parties!

Mostly D’s: I’m pretty sure you’re talking about your protagonist.

How’d you do friends? Awesome? Unawesome? Intensely ambivalent?
Questions, Answers, Results, SAT Verbal scores, and other grievances  
can be aired in the Comments section.

You Make Me,


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17 thoughts on “The Two Question Novel Quiz Part 5: Secondary Characters

  1. Cindy

    Since I didn’t see my answer given so far I decided to spit it out now. For number 1, I chose a combo platter–both B and D would be correct…it would be that Peter Pan takes her wedding band off on the weekends, and that Wendy is married to Peter Pan and it is the weekend this particular trip into the bar….uh-oh…caught!
    For question 2, I guess it had to be C. I don’t forget enough sometimes.

  2. Kevin Alexander

    Grades are, in fact, based on participation. Everyone gets a B+. I would give better grades but frankly, I don’t think they were earned.

    I’m kidding. Like my father, I just like to occasionally act disappointed for no reason.

    Renee– I’m glad I could bring you back to Usher. It was only a matter of time.

    Toni- You don’t need to pretend like you’re writing a novel to enjoy the novel quizzes. As i’ve stated before, they probably don’t really accomplish much. We welcome all sorts, even those who write ad copy:)

    Tom- stop having nine year old nieces who make me feel unproductive.

  3. Genevieve

    I wish I would have reaad this two days ago because I neeeded a laugh then. You guys are hysterical. As always (well, frequently anyway) Kevin I will tell you what crakced me up the most "She wears purple contact lenses and tells men that they’re real, until they really get to know her or realize that no one has purple eyes."

    No, Tom, I didn’t get any startling grades though I’m flattered by the comment. It sounds like your niece could bury us all! I think I’ve got about a "B." There are some secondary characters I’m smitten with so I tend to give them a good deal of time with the main character, and then there are some who are necessary evils and I have to force myself to make them more interesting somehow. Did I ever mention that in my first book I steered off the subject matter and got lost in the story because I fell in love with my main cahracter’s love interest? I’ve discovered this upon rereading it. I stay on course for the first half and spend the rest of the book following this guy around like a love sick narrator-puppy. So my advice to you ladies, and/or gay men, is to make a character irristable to readers, but look at him as a coworker or your cousin. You just can’t (sniff!) fall for him and completely forget your main character. Mine is still not speaking to me because of it.

    Um, you guys know that I know these people aren’t real, right? They’re just the peple in my head. Wait, that only makes me sound more crazy. I swear, I just need more coffee not medication.

  4. Toni A.

    Gee, I liked all the answers. Does that mean I really like full secondary characters, can’t tell the difference, or want to know too much about everyone?
    Love to read – writing has been confined to ad copy though. Guess I should not mention that here. Oh well.

  5. Tom

    Speaking of more quizzes, who is keeping track of the grades, and will we be graded on a curve? I don’t know why I’m hoping for a curve. Genevieve will probably do awesome and destroy it, anyway.

  6. Grace Tyler

    >>>Can you tell by my long and over-extended answers that I’m on deadline?

    No, not at all. And my own deadline just may be the reason I’m reading your blog instead of adding pages to my novel. A novel whose secondary characters could use a little of such help, but remember I’m on deadline. So the dogs are going to steal the show, as it should be.

  7. Tom

    All this talk of secondary characters – this couldn’t have anything to do with a blog from, say, last week, could it? Perhaps one in which a writer was praised for the insertion of a secondary character that he (or she!) had inserted almost as an afterthought? I’m just thinkin’ out loud here. I could be way off base, but it sounds almost like an episode of "KEV: Ripped from the Bloglines!"

    In any event, I have beaucoup free time at the office this afternoon, so I’m throwing out extra comments. In actuality, I think these are spot-on thoughts. My nine-year-old niece is now working on a short story, which she showed me last week. Before she had even completed page three of her manuscript, she had already done her list of characters, each with a brief out line including age and occupation. I kid you not. It can never hurt to know your characters, even if you’re only nine. She was able to give me a plot synopsis two days ago. I should take lessons from her.

    Nice work with the tacoes/tacows/taco’s. I don’t think anyone else noticed!

  8. Kevin Alexander

    Christopher- all the links appear to be working on my computer… hmmmm… i’d offer help but i’m afraid i don’t actually know anything about computers and/or the blogosphere. Sorry man.

    Angie- I think you make a fair and true point and there are obviously examples of secondary characters (memorable ones, in fact) that don’t get fully explored on the page. My point in doing the quiz was to get you thinking about them as full characters with deep histories even if those things never do actually get onto the page. I think spending a little time thinking about that can really improve those characters and bring them to life, and I think this is an important detail that is often ignored. I’m certainly guilty of it, especially because i’m lazy and have a terribly low sense of self-worth.

    Also, although i like to think my quizzes have real teaching points (as I’ve tried to show above), they’re mostly just there for your entertainment/conversation starting purposes.

    Can you tell by my long and over-extended answers that I’m on deadline?

    Apologies for length. Thanks for writing in!

  9. Angie

    I was concerned about my "grade" as well, which explains why I first figured out which answer was "supposed" to be correct, and then chose my answer. Apparently this is a winning strategy! I also use it on personality tests (which may or may not be self-defeating).

    But this exercise makes me wonder a little…some secondary characters you never get to know so much about. For example, in Paul Auster’s "City of Glass", wouldn’t the character Paul Auster be a secondary character, even though you never meet him until the end, and learn very little about him? Or is he even less than secondary?

  10. Tom

    What troubles me most about all of this is that I actually try to get a "good grade."

    I’ve yet to embark on a novel, have no secondary characters in mind for the future, and yet I felt compelled to pick out Cs so that I would be "ready when the time comes."

    …and did you honestly mean to put an apostrophe in "chicken taco’s?"

    Great, now I’m hungry, and not a breaded, batter-fried piece of meat or veggie anywhere in sight.


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