The Inner Life of Secondary Characters

Last weekend I posted a fun scene from my latest novel, Fool for Love, that highlights one of the secondary characters in the series, Jacinta Archer. I love that scene because Jacinta is such a character (no pun intended). She has a whole inner world and her mind works in definitive ways – ways that often meddle with the lives of the rest of the characters in the Montana Romance world. Oh yes, there is much more of Jacinta to come!

My favorite secondary character that I’ve written is the character of Toby Dunkirke from the Noble Hearts series. On the surface Toby is Sir Ethan’s loyal servant and Joanna’s beloved brother, but in reality he’s so much more! His loves run deep and the decisions he makes and actions he takes informs the action of the entire trilogy almost more than any of the heroes or heroines. And yet he’s still just a secondary character.

But really, that’s the point of these minor miracles. A novel that traces the journey of the hero and heroine exclusively can be okay, but once you add secondary characters – ah! that’s when things really start to pop!

lone ranger tontoThe simplest form of secondary character is the sidekick. It’s often nice to give the hero or heroine a friend and confident. Working a sidekick character into your stories can be a great way to deliver back-story without loading the prose down with exposition. Does your character need to work through a problem realistically to come to the course of action you as the author want them to take? One piece of advice I’ve seen is to have them talk things through with their confident. It’s a classic technique in literature dating back centuries. Hamlet had Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to bounce things off of, Lizzy Bennett talked things over with Jane, and Anne Shirley had her bosom friend, Diana Berry.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that you can stop there with secondary characters. I think they have so much more potential just waiting to be called on.

For example, more often than not the antagonist of a story could be considered a secondary character, particularly in Romance. If the central focus of Romance is to bring the hero and heroine together and to give them an emotionally satisfying ending, then the antagonist is a tool to achieve that end. Beyond that, depending on what that antagonists own goals, motivations, and conflicts are, they can help shape the course of the plot. The secondary character, in that case, has a direct impact on the final outcome of the story.

That role of story-mover doesn’t have to be limited to the antagonist though. Every character in a story, whether they are the central focus of the plot or not, has the potential to shape the actions taken by the hero or heroine. That role extends far beyond just being a confident to sound ideas off of and to provide a smoother way to convey information from the author.

Take Harry Potter, for example. You could argue that besides Harry, Ron and Hermione are also main characters. And yet so much of what moves the plots and reveals information in those books is caused by the secondary characters, Ginny, Neville, Snape, Dobby, the list goes on. Heck, Dumbledore is technically a secondary character, and yet his back-story and the choices he has made throughout his entire life directly impact everything our heroes are going through.

Harry Potter Book CoverThe best secondary characters are the ones that you remember because of how vividly they were drawn. These are no mere Yes-Men. They are individuals with their own lives, whether you read about them or not. In fact, a really good secondary character leaves you wanting the author to go back and write an entire book about just that character. One of the proudest moments of my writing career so far was when my editor, a professional working for a major publishing company, begged me to write a novella about Toby after reading and working on The Courageous Heart.

These days in the Romance world, books tend to fit into series. I’ve done it myself and plan to do it over and over again. In these cases the secondary characters in one book end up being the hero and/or heroine of later books. I happen to love this! It means that you have entire series worlds populated with characters that live and breathe and love and yearn and have entire stories of their own that you get to read. Marvelous! But I also like to throw in a few characters that don’t fit the mold of Hero or Heroine, characters whose hearts beat just below the surface whether the reader gets to see it or not. In my opinion, that’s what makes the world of any given book full and rich.

So, Toby Dunkirke is my favorite secondary character that I’ve written, and Severus Snape is probably my favorite secondary character written by someone else. Who is yours?

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One thought on “The Inner Life of Secondary Characters

  1. I love my secondary characters. I think they add a richness to the book that wouldn’t be there without them. But my favorite? Wow, that’s hard. I think it might be, the Dowager Lady Beaumont. From The Temptation of Lady Serena. She’s a pistol.

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