What ‘Doctor Who’ Teaches Us About Writing Strong Secondary Characters

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Few shows have as many great secondary characters as Doctor Who. The companions stand out just as much as the different reincarnations of the Doctor, and writers have plenty of examples to study why. From background stories to personal quirks, each companion has something to offer.

Here are five top tips to learn from Doctor Who that will help you to bring your secondary characters to life.

Secondary Characters Deserve First Rate Stories

Be sure your characters are rooted in your world. Know beyond how they influence the immediate story. Who are they? Where do they come from? What is their family like? Do they have a job? Do they party on weekends, or are they happier staying home with a book or a few close friends?

Martha Jones has a stellar background. She comes into the narrative through her job at the hospital, and future stories tie back into her life. We get to know her family, and we see her education in action regularly.

Give Them Their Own Arcs

Characters without unique development arcs are essentially props with faces. To avoid this make sure your character undergoes a transformation. Give them the same kind of driving desires and goals that motivate your protagonist, and use those to guide the secondary character’s story.

If you’re looking for an example, you can’t do much better than Donna Noble. Her arc is clearly defined. In the beginning, she’s lonely, hurt, and looking for someone – anyone – to love her. She feels pointless. By the end of her arc, she is not the same woman at all. Her confidence literally saves the world, and she becomes the most important woman in the universe. Both ends of her arc support the protagonist’s narrative.

Use Them to Develop Your Protagonist

Doctor Who’s many seasons rely on secondary characters to constantly reform the Doctor. The protagonist changes dramatically, with secondary characters acting as a mold. Sometimes, the Doctor regenerates to fit an established companion, as was the case for Rose Tyler. In the Ponds’ extensive arc, the Doctor became more family-oriented, but had the impulsiveness and enthusiasm of young love. As the Ponds aged, the stress on that character grew. In Clara Oswald’s situation, the Doctor relied on her to help him rediscover his identity, and his dependence threatened the universe. Each companion leaves an indelible mark on the Doctor, in one way or another.

Illuminate the World with Their Actions

The world is what we make it, or what the companions make it. The secondary characters of Doctor Who have always been more than the Doctor’s sounding board. They give the audience a particular perspective of places and events through their actions and responses. The differences illuminated through the show’s constant juxtapositions tell the audience more than any one line of dialogue ever could.

Make Them Stand Out

What is a good companion without a notable quirk? Donna was sassy. Amy Pond was the epitome of the young, angry, Scottish woman. Sarah Jane sniffed out trouble like a true journalist. There have been many, many companions over the years. We remember the ones who stuck out.

The range and diversity of the Doctor’s companions means there are examples for just about any situation you can imagine. Their influence over plot and protagonist guides the show. So long as the Doctor runs, there will be companions, and we’ll have more and more fabulous examples to learn from.

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