Hello gentle reader,
Today I’d like to talk about how to write unforgettable secondary characters. To do so I will use the example of Ianto Jones, a supporting character in the British Science-Fiction Drama Torchwood (played by Gareth David-Lloyd). Fair warning: here there’ll be spoilers, so stop reading now if you haven’t watched this great show which ended in 2010.
Why Ianto Jones, you ask? Because when Ianto died in the fourth episode of the series’ third season in July 2009, fans were so overwhelmed with shock and grief they created a shrine for him in Cardiff. Yes, a shrine.
Photo by crimson_bride from Save Ianto.Com
So how did the writers of the show made us care for Ianto so much that his fictional death broke our hearts, and what can we learn from this for our own writing?
1- The audience can relate to him
The Torchwood Institute is a small team of alien-hunters in Cardiff, Wales. All the main characters are clever and charismatic heroes who are excellent at saving the world and the day. And then you have Ianto.
“And this is Ianto Jones. Ianto cleans up after us and gets us everywhere on time.”
Ianto is not a hero. He makes coffee, sweeps the floor, drives the car, gets takeout food and occasionally helps the heroine buy her wedding dress. He is stuck in a dead-end job and feels inadequate. And yet, in this part-of-the-background kind of way, the audience gets used to him. And starts to wonder why he’s here…
2- He has a personality
From the start of the series, Ianto has defining characteristics that make him real and present in the audience’s subconscious. These are details, but they help flesh him out: his clothes (a three-piece suit, his earpiece), the stiffness in his posture, his dry sense of humor… Ianto is a 3D character.
3- Somebody loves him
The best way to make the reader/audience care about a character is to show him loved by another beloved character. In this case, it becomes clear in the 2d season of the show that the hero Jack is falling for Ianto. And the fact that Ianto means something to the other protagonists makes it easier for the audience to love him too.
4- His actions are motivated (even if it’s not clear at first)
Ianto’s presence in the Torchwood’s team is not accidental. The audience doesn’t know it at first, and finds out about it as the series progresses. And looking back, you’re able to understand why Ianto accepted this dead-end job, why he acted the way he did in each episode, and why his death is simply a tragedy.
5- He is flawed
Ianto Jones is not a hero. He is a normal bloke who makes bad decisions, can be a coward in the face of danger and has dubious judgment. He has layers. And you can only love him for it.
So next time you’re creating a secondary character, ask you yourself how you can make him so real, so mutli-layered and so easy to identify with your readers will build him a shrine when you kill him off.
How do you make secondary characters unforgettable? Share your tips in the comment section below!
And here are a few links you may find useful: