Stories focus on a protagonist’s character arc, and his journey to change. But stories become much more dynamic when the secondary characters also have character arcs. How can we include a secondary character arc without taking away from the main character arc?

In Mad Men Season 6, the show introduces an arc to Don’s new secretary, Dawn. She’s a black secretary, working in a borderline racist white business world, during the late 60s when racial tensions were at their peak. There’s a simple scene of her meeting one of her friends, who ask Dawn about her safety traveling into the city. This simple scene adds complexity to Dawn and we become to watch how she’s getting along with the city and the coworkers. And yet it’s small enough that it always remains in the background.

Last night I noticed another small character arc. It’s with Pinky the Penguin in the Netflix comedy BoJack Horseman. Pinky runs Penguin publishing and his goal is to get BoJack, a washed up TV-star, to write a memoir. A lesser writer would stop there, they would’ve presented this publishing company that wants to get BoJack to write a book. But here, the show introduces a tiny arc. Pinky’s publishing company is failing, and he hopes and dreams that BoJAck’s book will save it. Now every time Pinky is in the story, we see this stressed out penguin who desperately wants BoJack to finish his book.

The only difference between main characters and secondary characters is the intensity of the drama and how front and center is that drama, is it the center problem of the story. Don, in Mad Men, has a whole false-identity driving him, and it affects everyone around him. While Dawn affects her friends, who are off camera, a little bit of Don. BoJAck is a alcoholkic and a saddist, while Pinky you tell see off camera he’s likely has difficulties at home, but on camera he’s only affecting BoJack with his constant nagging for the book.

A protagonist’s arc affects everyone around him, while a secondary character affects only the characters closet to them. This is a simple distinction. But what I find more interesting about writing this, is by looking at these small character arcs, it’s easier to see what a character arc actually is. Anytime internal drama is introduced in a character, an arc is created.