Monday, November 16, 2009

Secondary Characters - Part Two

Last week in Part One of "Secondary Characters", I discussed the types of secondary characters. This week we're looking at the jobs secondary characters need to do in our books.

Purposes of Secondary Characters.

Comic Relief – These are my favourite secondary characters to write because, unlike the hero and heroine, they don’t have to behave better than most mortals. They can say, and do, outrageous things and get away with them, making them great fun to write. One of my favourite characters from my own work is Josie in “Her Best Man”. She’s the over the top, lovey-dovey newly wed on the cruise ship who can’t take the hint that Sarah and Will don’t want to spend every waking minute with her.

Tragedy – Sometimes the actions or the fates of secondary characters point the way for our lead characters, telling them what to avoid. In Marsha Canham’s book “The Blood of Roses”, the secondary characters Deirdre and Aluinn come to a tragic end at the Battle of Culloden. Main characters Catherine and Alex must fight that much harder to avoid the fate of their best friends.

Rounding Out Characters – Providing families and friends to our characters makes them more rounded, real people. After all, few real people live in isolation so why should your characters?

Providing Friendship and Guidance – Secondary characters often act as sounding boards to the main characters. The heroine can discuss her feelings about the hero with her best friend and the best friend can offer advice. Readers are then privy to the feelings of the main characters.

Pointing out Contrasts – The virtues of a lead character may be illustrated by contrasting her character with that of a secondary character. For example, the hero may come to see the inner beauty of the heroine when it is directly compared to the ugliness of spirit of his ex-girlfriend. The ex-girlfriend may be far more physically beautiful, but she can’t compete with the heroine’s kindness, humility and courage.

Showing True Colors – When heroes and heroines interact with secondary characters they reveal who they really are. For instance in the TV show “The Gilmore Girls” Lorelai treats best friend Sookie with love. Although the citizens of Stars Hollow are quirky to say the least, she shows them respect and loyalty. And although she makes jokes about her parents, we see her vulnerability in her interactions with them.

Advancing the Love Plot – Secondary characters should always advance the plot in some way, especially the romance plot. Perhaps they introduce the main characters. Or perhaps the secondary character is someone the hero and heroine both care about. In K.N. Casper’s Superromance “Her Brother’s Keeper” Krisanne must return to her hometown when she receives the news that her brother is dying. Going back home puts her in contact once more with his best friend and business partner Drew, the man she’d loved and who betrayed her seven years earlier. They must come together to look after Krisanne’s brother in his last days.

What Not to Write

There are certain pitfalls to avoid when building a secondary character:

Stereotypes and Cartoons – While secondary characters should be drawn with broad strokes rather than fine details like the main characters, they should not be so one-dimensional that they feel like cardboard cut outs. Try to avoid the stereotypes that we’ve seen so many times – the scheming other woman, the evil ex-boyfriend, the nasty mother-in-law. Give your secondary characters something that makes them more human and less cartoonish. One of the secondary characters I despise is the precocious/over-precious child. Having raised children of my own, I know that children are not sweet and adorable at all times. Especially teenagers.

Secondary characters that steal the show - These are secondary characters that are so well drawn and interesting that they make the lead characters look bland in comparison. I once read a category romance in which the heroine, a former professional ballerina, left the stage to marry the hero, who was a forest ranger, or some such thing. When the heroine’s former dance partner arrived on the scene, he was so much more compelling and interesting than the hero that I had to ask “You left this guy for the forest ranger?” It made the characters lose all credibility for me.

Same old, same old – If the secondary characters in one of your stories could be interchangeable with the secondary characters in another of your stories, you’ve failed to make them truly unique. Literary agent Donald Maass says “Supporting players in manuscripts are too often forgettable. They walk on, walk off, making no particular impression. What wasted opportunities”.

Secondary Characters who control the fate of the lead characters – A story in which secondary characters scheme to throw the heroine or heroine together, or solve the mystery, or explain things to the main characters that clear up all disagreements and misunderstandings between them, is far less satisfying for a reader than a story in which the heroine and hero achieve these goals by their own actions. Lead characters must always be active and in charge of their own fates.

Do you have a favourite type of secondary character? Do you like series where your favourite secondary characters are given books of their own? Which authors do you believe create the most memorable secondary characters? Do you have favourite examples of secondary characters from books, TV or movies?


Redameter said...

Secondary characters are as important to the book as the hero and heroine in helping to develop the story and plotting. Some can steal the show, or be just so lovable the reader would love to know more about them.

In Nick's Baby my readers wanted me to write a sequel with the secretary, a black male. I never did, but I was surprised when I read it. I think part of the allure was that he was black and the CEO, the heroine was white and they were best friends.

I've even been asked to write about the father in the Travers Brothers series. He's such a sweet senior citizen. But the last brothers story will sew all the lose ended people up in the books.

You make some very valid points about secondary characters. I find it is easy to make their personalities fit the story. And sometimes hard to not draw attention to themselves at the same time.

Great job

Obe said...

I agree I mean were would John Wayne be without Ward Bond or Gabey Hayes. Second dairy characters can ofter say things our hero/heroine can not. Great post today love this.


Janet said...

Great follow-up post, Jana. I agree that secondary characters are vital to the plot, pacing, and emotion of a novel. I tend to use them as confidents for the main so I have another way to show conflict and motivation. It's important to have someone the main character can talk to - it gets really boring if all the discussion about what to do is internal. And like I said last week, secondary characters are another way to showcase our characters' personalities.

It's a fine line, however, making them credible, believable, strong 3-D characters and letting them steal the show.

BTW - you do a very good job with Jack's daughter's character and Bridget's daughter's character in Welcome to Paradise. The girls come across very well - very believable, with their own issues and problems inate to children of their age.

Karyn Good said...

Great post, Jana. I struggle with secondary characters, giving too much importance to some and making others to cookie cutterish. I'll be coming back to your post in the weeks to come and paying particular attention to your What Not To Write list!

My favorite type as a reader are those Comic Relief characters who are quirky, funny and wise for all their eccentricities. I'd love to be able to write more of those types of secondary characters.

Thanks for the great tips, Jana.

glenys said...

Really good explanation of secondary characters, Jana! It can also be surprising which characters tug a reader's heartstrings - in Resort to Murder I had a stray dog, Tuesday. Guess which character got the most mention from readers and reviewers?LOL!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Redameter,
I think when we read a story, especially a series, we get so involved in the characters' lives that we think of them as friends. If there is a secondary character that we particularly bonded with, we want to know her story. So I'm not surprised your readers wanted to know more about what was going to happen to your secretary and CEO characters. Obviously, they were people readers could root for!

Many years ago Harlequin did a series set in the fictitious Texas town of Crystal Creek. They dealt with one of the older characters, a grandfather, by going back in time and telling his story as a young man. It gave a lot of insight into the man he became in his later years.

Thanks for stopping by and being with us on the Prairies today.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Nancy,
Thanks for stopping by. We're happy you've joined us here on the Prairies.

Indeed, where would John Wayne be without his sidekicks :) But seriously, those secondary characters added a sense of fun to an otherwise serious hero.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I often use secondary characters as confidentes as well. Like you said, it's great to get out feelings and emotion in dialogue rather than having to use inner monologue all the time.

Yes, it's a fine line between believable secondary characters and secondary characters that steal the book. There are a few things to keep in mind. Secondary characters cannot be given as much writing time as the main characters. The hero and heroine are always given top priority. As well, we can't delve too deeply into the feelings and motivations of the secondary characters. They are there to serve the main characters. If they're lucky they'll get a chance to shine in their own stories later on! Also, it's important to remember that the main characters must be the ones who act in the story. By that I mean the hero and heroine have to solve their own problems. Secondary characters can help, but the hero and heroine have to do the heavy lifting. That's what makes them the main characters after all!

Thanks for the kind words about the daughters in my WIP. Unfortunately I'm going to have to change Jack's daughter's age. I'm going to make her older so that she was born soon after Jack and Bridget split up, the result of a rebound affair for Jack. I want her mere existence to cause conflict for Bridget! Tension on every page! My new mantra.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Take a look at my tips in my comment to Janet. Maybe they'll give you a bit of help.

I love secondary characters that provide comic relief. In "Her Best Man" I got to create a mother of the bride who was a nightmare. When the groom announced he couldn't marry her daughter, she chased him around the altar, whacking him with her shoe. She was great fun and I could make her truly outrageous, partly because it was funny, and partly because I wanted to show that Sarah, the jilted bride, really needed a vacation!


Jana Richards said...

Hi Glenys,
Welcome to the Prairies!

That's too funny about the dog! But in a way I guess I'm not surprised. Readers love animals and get very attached to them, much as we do in real life. I once read a novel where the big, tough alpha male hero adopts a stray kitten. He was incredibly gentle and sweet with it. It showed another side to his character and endeared him to the heroine and to readers.


Mary Ricksen said...

Great advise, many thanks for the post.

LK Hunsaker said...

Hi Jana, I found your link at CRR and thought I'd pop in. Great advice as to what not to do with secondaries. There is too much tendency to make them too shallow, I think, and it takes the reality edge away from the story. I've read strong secondary characters but don't think I've found one that stole the show. I'd rather read that than to not get enough depth.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, I particularly like your list of things to avoid. Each of the functions a secondary can do can easily slip into a bad move.. such as cliche comic relief, people introduced for the sake of killing them off, stereotypical family, or 'the gay best friend'.

Characters stealing the show are one of the biggest problems I see. They become a little bit quirkier, a little more unique, and wind up with way more actual character than the main protagonists. They get the little quirks that make us human, the ones that don't need to evolve as the story goes on. Of course a lot of those ones seem to die too... or at least the ones that steal the show for me.

Aside from the ones that overshadow the main character and then die, I think some of my favourites are the tragic characters. It's always good to kill characters who matter rather than dispensable minor characters, and some of the deaths that stick the most, and move me the most, are the losses of really excellent secondary characters. It's a real testament to an author's skill when they can develop a secondary we care about enough to move us when they die..but who doesn't overshadow the main character.

Celia Yeary said...

Interesting information. I love secondary characters, and while I agree with most of your post, I do have to put in a good word for the evil Mother-in-law. In All My Hopes and Dreams, my first novel, the MIL almost stole the show. She was the villian, and in all reviews and comments, she received rave reviews--for being thoroughly wicked. I did redeem her in the end, though. Celia

Gail Pallotta said...

Thank you for this useful post on secondary characters. While mine have their own personalities, I like the analysis of the uses of secondary characters. I'll be filing them away for future reference.

Maeve Greyson said...

Hi Jana!

I really enjoyed your post and how you listed the different types of secondary characters. I'd have to say the one's I enjoy the most are a bit of a combo of what you listed. Since I write paranormal romances, my secondary characters are usually animals who provide a bit of comic relief.

Thanks for such an informative post!

Take care!
Maeve Greyson

Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,
Thanks for dropping by. I'm glad you found the information useful.

LK, welcome to the Prairies!

I agree with your contention that secondary characters lacking depth are uninteresting and unappealing. I think you can make a secondary character interesting, and give them quirks and personality without having them take over the book. I think you just have to careful not to lose the focus on the main characters. Secondary characters should add something to a story, rather than being poor imitations of real people.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
Your comment reminded me of old episodes of "Star Trek" when there was some guy we'd never seen before at the beginning of the show. You just knew they were going to kill him off before the final credits rolled.

Years ago I read a Sandra Brown book in which she killed off a much loved character, a woman who was like a mother to the hero. It was devastating to the hero and heroine, and to the reader. Like you said, this secondary character's death really mattered. The death (a murder actually) served to motivate the main characters so it served the plot as well.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Celia,
Okay I'll let you have the evil mother-in-law! Sometimes those over the top evil characters can be a lot of fun. And sometimes they don't even have to be redeemed.

In "Bittersweet" by LaVeryl Spencer (my apologies if I spelled Ms. Spencer's name incorrectly) the mother of the heroine was a horrible, judgemental, hypercritical person. She was difficult and made the lives of everyone around her difficult. Ms. Spencer does not redeem her in the book. I think if she had it would have seemed unrealistic. This was who the character was.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Gail,
Welcome to the Prairies! Thanks for dropping by. I'm pleased you found the information useful.

Hi Maeve,
Welcome to you too! I had to laugh when you said you wrote animals who provided comic relief. That sounds like a lot of fun. I'm sure they make truly unique secondary characters.


P.L. Parker said...

I love secondary characters. They add so much character to the whole story. Just so fun to create.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey, good post, Jana.

I usually remember secondary characters because of their quirks.

Yes, I really like it when secondary characters are given their own books. In fact, I'll scour bookstores looking for a book after being teased about their story.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Patsy,
I agree that secondary characters are so much fun to create. I especially like that they can do and say things that the main characters can't, or shouldn't.

All the best

Jana Richards said...

Hey Anita,
I've been known to scour a few bookstores looking for the next in a series as well. On occassion I've picked up an older book at garage sale and discovered it was part of a series. Then I have to try to find the rest of the series! Not always easy with an older book.