Monday, November 9, 2009

Secondary Characters - Part One

One of my favourite TV shows is “The Gilmore Girls”. I love the fast and witty dialogue (even though my husband says they talk too much). And I especially love all the quirky citizens of Stars Hollow, Lorelai’s controlling mother and father, and Rory’s passive/aggressive friend Paris. These characters, while funny, memorable and sometimes truly unusual, never overshadow the main character’s stories. They support the main story line, and give the show humour and depth.

A secondary character in a romance novel should do the same. She’s the best friend or the sister who listens to the heroine’s problems. Or maybe she’s the friend from high school who’s always made the heroine jealous. Whoever she or he is, this person has several jobs to accomplish.

Types of Secondary Characters.

Background Characters. These are the characters who play a small role in your story. These might be waitresses in restaurants, clerks in stores, librarians, neighbours. I once read a book (whose author shall remain nameless) in which we got into the head of a waiter for a short time. Apparently he thought the heroine was quite lovely. But who cares? The waiter never appeared again and was totally unimportant to the story. Children’s author Ellen Jackson says that you might want to give some of these background characters a few quirks or characteristics if it serves the story. But do it cautiously. Ms. Jackson says “It can be a mistake to devote too many words or lines to a background character. While you can lavish a few telling details on some of these folks, you mustn’t let them overshadow the main action. The general rule is to give background characters space in direct proportion to their importance in your story.”

According to a Barnes and Noble Romance Book Club article I read, there are three kind of important secondary characters:

The Good. These are genuinely good people the main characters associate with.
These characters are important to the story and to the main characters. They are the best friends, parents, children, brothers and sisters. They may even have subplots and romances of their own. But all of their subplots have to support the main story and eventually weave into the main plot without eclipsing it. For example, in my novel “Till September”, Ben and Kelly, Hannah’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law, are facing grave financial problems. Their subplot ties into the main plot when the hero Quinn, a real estate developer, offers to buy their farm. Hannah is devastated at the prospect of losing her closest friends, and blames Quinn and his company for taking them away.

The Bad. These secondary characters are the villains of your story, and make life difficult for the lead characters. They could be criminals, but they could also be meddling mothers, or well-meaning friends who cause trouble for the main characters. These villains shouldn’t be bad for the sake of being bad. They will be much more convincing if they truly believe what they are doing is the best course of action. In my current WIP “Welcome to Paradise” Tina humiliates Bridget on her first night in Paradise. But eventually we come to see that Tina has her own reasons for her actions that make sense to her.

The Ugly. By ugly, I mean ugly of spirit. This is the conniving “other woman” or the jealous ex-boyfriend. They can truly make trouble for the lead characters. But be careful of such characters. If they are truly ugly characters, readers might lose respect for our lead characters for associating with them in the first place.

Literary agent Donald Maass says that “Building a memorable secondary character begins with making that character memorable for your protagonist.” In other words, who is important to your lead character? It could be a parent, a child, a teacher. Explore the relationship between your lead character and the secondary character. What makes it unique? What makes the secondary character unique? As Maass says “Next, explore the effect that this paragon has on your protagonist, then find a meaningful moment for that effect to be expressed.”

Next week I’ll explore some of the jobs secondary characters need to accomplish in your stories. Do you like creating secondary characters? Do you think they are necessary to romance novels? What books, TV shows or movies do you think have interesting or memorable secondary characters?


Yunaleska said...

Good reminder of what a secondary character should be like.

Secondary characters help make a main character - without them, the main character would be pretty lonely.

Karyn Good said...

Wonderful post, Jana. And great timing as usual. I'm thinking a lot about secondardy characters as I write Kate and Seth's story this month. Who should they be, how much time should I spend on them, etc. I find them difficult to write but your post gave me a place to start and I'm looking forward to next week's post and learning about their jobs and their purpose.

Whenever I think of memorable secondary characters in a movie I think of one of my favorites, Notting Hill. The secondary characters absolutely make that show. So quirky, funny, some of them down right weird but all of them are wonderful. Love that movie!

Helena said...

Hi, Jana! Very interesting topic today. I didn't watch 'The Gilmore Girls' until the series was almost done, but I really enjoyed it. (I was referred to it by a friend who was raised by a single mom and she thought my Fiona story would benefit if I watched the mother/daughter interaction.) I enjoyed David Sutcliff's brief role as Lorelai's ex and their re-marriage that sadly didn't work -- a secondary character that must have revealed something about her or helped her understand herself better?

Currently, I enjoy the mother in 'Castle.' She has such a caustic wit, and you always wonder what kind of a curve she might throw into the plot. The daughter's story line is getting stronger, but still secondary. Last week she played a fairly significant role in solving the murder of her favourite singer.

I have had characters all of a sudden walk into a story and assume a greater presence than I intended. It happened when Laura went to the conference in London, and she sat by an American prof whom she found quite repugnant at first. Later on he proved to be useful to her (and my story) when he inadvertently stumbled on her reading an e-mail that contained disturbing info from Fiona. An empathetic discussion ensued. My writers' group thought he merited a larger place in the story. At the moment he is in limbo! I'll be anxious to read more about secondary characters in your post next week.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I really enjoying creating secondary characters, but background characters... not so much. If characters are really minor, I tend to just leave them out, give them no dialogue. Without a lot of time to develop them, they can sometimes feel like tired cliches, and then I just don't want them around.

I'll be very interested to read next week's post on the jobs of such characters. As you mentioned, now and then a story's secondaries are too quirky, intriguing, and funny, and make the hero/heroine seem plain.

Janet said...

Great post, Jana. I love secondary characters for the simple fact that they allow the protag to really be him/herself. These people have known the main character for so long that all pretense is gone and the true personality/identity comes shining through when in the company of friends, family, maids. Sometimes when the protag is being extremely difficult, I like the secondary character better :)

Looking forward to next week's post.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Yunaleska,
Thanks for dropping by. I think you're right. Secondary characters do make the main character. They certainly help the reader know who the main character is.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Sometimes I find secondary characters more fun to write then the main characters! I have to be careful not to make them too interesting!

I love Notting Hill too. Hugh Grant's friends were wonderful, funny and quirky. I especially love the ending where they all pile into the car to get Hugh to Julia's press conference. Another good one for secondary characters(speaking of Hugh Grant) is 4 Weddings and a Funeral. Lots of quirky characters in that one too.

Happy writing!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I always liked the character of Rory's father (David Sutcliffe) until he dumped Lorelai. Now he's a bum. But I digress...

Yes, sometimes a secondary character will unexpectedly pop into the story and try to grab a bigger part then the author originally intended. Then you have to decide whether to go in that direction or to cut back the character's part. Does this character serve the story? Will the story be better if I give this character a larger part? Or is he leading me down a blind alley? Some things to consider.

BTW I like the characters in Castle as well. The mother and daughter show the audience who Richard Castle really is. However, on a side note, I've gotta wonder how Richard writes all those best sellers when he's hanging around the police station all the time! When does he write? :)


Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
It's not too often that a background character will need much attention, especially a speaking part. But I've seen it happen in contest entries and even in published works. If a background character is given some attention, as a reader I'll be expecting them to become an important character to the book. If that doesn't happen I feel a bit cheated. What was the point of building them up? Secondary characters are fun to create, but must be handled with care.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Secondary characters are great for showing the main character's true personality. In Helena's example of the TV show "Castle", Richard Castle comes off as a sort of immature, very non-serious sort of person, someone who really only cares about himself. But when you see him with his daughter he is very much the concerned, loving parent. And his dealings with his mother show that he is the mature one in that relationship!

Happy writing,

Anita Mae Draper said...

Good post, Jana! I'm lovin' all the comments about one of my favorite dramas - Castle.

The secondary characters is one of the things the judges didn't like about Emma's Outlaw when I subbed it to a contest. They said the outlaws were typical and not special. So, it's one of the things I'm working on this month.

Usually I don't have problems with secondary characters or their quirks. But then again, I've never had 3 men in that position in the same book before. :(

Looking forward to your next post.