Secondary Characters: Those People Nobody Loves
It’s just terrible! Look for the definition of a secondary character and you’ll come up with something like this:
“A minor character supports the main character in a story. Also known as two-dimensional characters or flat characters, they do not grow or change.”
As for quotes about secondary characters, there’s only one — and quite wonderful — from poet, Tony Hoagland:
“The glory of the protagonist is always paid for by a lot of secondary characters”
How true! And secondary characters seem to be particularly disliked by many romance publishers. Don’t let secondary characters take on too much importance, they warn writers. The story has to revolve, almost totally, around the hero and heroine.
But let’s look more closely at this subject…
Sure, we read and write romance novels because we want to re-live that thrill of new love. But, let’s be honest: our hero and heroine are (perhaps only temporarily) pretty flat characters. They’re obsessed with each other and sexual fulfillment because their bodies have suddenly been swamped by those naturally produced “love” chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine. Not only that, their serotonin levels have dropped so low, they’re suffering from a love-induced obsessive-compulsive disorder. Frankly, they’re intellectual bores: they jaw on endlessly about each other; get themselves into sticky situations; forget how to think, and make a thousand wrong decisions before hitting on the right (obvious) one. They garble, stutter, stumble, blush sweat and are rude… all because…well… love has struck them dumb.
Way back in 1889, Jerome K. Jerome mentioned courting couples in his book, Three Men In A Boat. If there’s a courting couple anywhere in the vicinity, he warned, your life is a misery. No matter where you go — into a comfortable room to read a book, out into the garden for a stroll — you’ll run into that couple. Embarrassed, you hide in your bedroom until bored silly; but dare sneak into the summerhouse or the conservatory… and here they are again. Forever fidgeting, righting their clothes, they’re incapable of civilized conversation or polite behavior. And irritated by your hapless, awkward intrusions, they make it clear they only wish you gone!
So who is thinking clearly in a romance book? You’ve got it: those secondary characters. And, boy, do we ever need them. They give us information that will make a story move; they show us what’s going on and what folks are saying; and they’re usually necessary to our hero and heroine’s evolution. Secondary characters also add punch, contrast, humor and danger. Yes, we know a romance will have a happy end, but the secondary characters don’t, so we need their take on things.
Just think: even Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice, would be fairly dull stuff if we didn’t have brilliantly-drawn secondary characters such as the very foolish Mrs. Bennet and her silly younger daughters, Mary, Lydia and Catherine. Would Mr. Darcy seem half so wonderful without those unpleasant secondary characters: plotting, lying George Wickham; self-righteous, pompous clergyman, William Collins?
So let’s give a cheer for secondary characters. They’re colorful, interesting and droll. Let’s demand them. Let’s defend them. And let’s love them. Let’s create them.
Oops… just found another wonderful quote about secondary characters. It’s from the writer Sarah Waters:
“Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s.”
In all my writing — romance, mystery or narrative non-fiction — secondary characters get considerable glory time. They deserve it too: they’re a great bunch of cranky, wild and woolly, politically incorrect folk, and they’d never abide by anyone else’s rules.