I love secondary characters, for a lot of reasons. You know who they are: those folks who frequent the deli where the heroine works, the bar where the hero hangs out. Her granny, his uncle Charlie, the headmistress, the coachman. They are often more fun than heroes and heroines, at least to write about.
I'm not talking about a heroine's BFF. She's more of a supporting actor, because she has to be Heroine's confidante. Same goes for Hero's sidekick. They play important roles in romances, and in a lot of mysteries too. And definitely in westerns--remember "Gabby" Hayes?
Most secondary characters are not as big a part of a story as the BFF and the sidekick are, but they're a step above being "spear carriers in someone else's opera" (Isn't that a great description? I wish I knew who said it first). They don't have to have well-defined motivations or be so well described that a reader can easily visualize them, and they can get away with a lot. Without them, many stories would be pretty flat and uninteresting.
Creating secondary characters can be a challenge. They have to be fleshed out enough to be more than scenery, yet, there's always the risk of having them take over a story. That happened to me in one of my early contemporary romances. It was set in a small town and I had the best time making the bar owner, the city councilwoman, the money-hungry developer and a whole bunch of others into real live people. The only trouble was, by the time I was finished, they'd pretty much overwhelmed the story, because there were ninety-three of them (a publisher who rejected the story counted them) in a 260-page story. Oops!
I'm currently reading a mystery series that has a bit of that problem. The protagonist/investigator/sleuth is a remarkable fellow, and his primary sidekick has a fair share of intriguing foibles. The mysteries are satisfying. I haven't figured out an ending in advance so far. But after reading eight, I'm still trying to figure out some of the relationships among the same dozen or so quirky characters who pop up in every book, not to mention the twenty or thirty others who stroll across the stage now and then. But doggone! They are all so interesting, I just keep reading.
In my own "Behind the Ranges" series, I've tried to curb my enthusiasm for huge casts of secondary characters, but there are a few who keep popping up, either personally or in memory. Buffalo Jones, a cantankerous old fur trapper who only appeared in The Queen of Cherry Vale, gets remembered a lot. Japhet Breedlove never appears, because he was shot before Noble Savage began. Oh, my, but he was a nasty man, evil all through. Mrs. Petrie, the long-time cook in the Lachlan's big house in Boise City, even gets a romance, although it mostly takes place off-stage.
Once in a while secondary character speaks up and demands his or her own story. Or readers demand to know what's happened to this one or that. When I began writing The Queen of Cherry Vale, I never would've thought it would develop into a ten-book and one novella series. But there was this young kid who went off to find adventure, and an Indian woman who ran away, and...
And that's one reason I love secondary characters. You never know when they're going to stand up and say, "Tell my story. Please, tell my story."
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Commoner By Choice Blurb
The heyday of gold discoveries is over in Idaho Territory, but there are still fortunes to be found. Eliza Jane Dollarhide believes that one is buried somewhere near a tiny mining camp deep in the wilderness. Her guide is Micah King, young, widowed, highly recommended--and Black. Never having known a person of color, Eliza is at first apprehensive, but soon learns that Micah is both a gentleman and a superbly competent guide.
A good thing, too, for soon after they reach the isolated gold mining town of Yellowjacket, they realize they face deadly danger. Someone is after the papers Eliza came to retrieve, and will stop at nothing, not even wanton murder, to get them. Only one road leads out of Yellowjacket, so Micah guides Eliza along a dangerous trail through the wilderness, depending on dim memories of a long-ago journey through almost impenetrable mountains. As they travel, each learns to know the other, and soon love blooms between them.
Impossible love, for Eliza is white. So even if they survive their ordeal--and escape whoever is trying to kill them--sooner or later they will have to part.
Or will they? Surely there must be a way they can be together, be happy.
Commoner By Choice Excerpt
"Can you shoot?"
Eliza looked up from her plate. "Shoot? Of course not. All I know about guns is that they make loud noises and they kill people."
His eyes closed and his lips tightened.
She imagined him counting to ten and was conscious of a sense that she'd somehow failed a test. "That wasn't the right answer. What I should have said was that I've never had an opportunity to use a gun. Or a need."
"And I hope you never do have the need. But you should know what do to if it ever happens. We haven't ammunition to spare, but I want you to know how to load and aim. Jocky, can you handle the mules alone this morning?"
"Sure, Micah." His plate empty, Jocky set it aside and refilled his coffee cup. "When I'm done, can you show me how to use the gold pan?"
Of all the-- Eliza glared at both men. They were here to find Mr. Harris's papers, not to play gold miner. And why the sudden need for her to learn to shoot? That's why she'd hired a guide, wasn't it? To protect her?
She used the last fragment of biscuit to wipe the bacon grease off her plate. The first morning on the trail, she'd found it revolting even to think of eating grease. Now she rather enjoyed the flavor. Seeing that they had no butter or jam, it made an excellent spread. But she was getting tired of bacon and biscuits every morning. Some porridge would taste good, even without cream.
They went to the cleared area in front of the mine for her shooting lesson. When she gingerly took Micah's rifle in her hands, she was surprised at the weight of it.
He pointed out the various parts. "Stock, hammer, trigger, magazine, sight..."
She understood only about half of what he said, but she decided she really didn't need to know what all the pieces were, just how to load it and shoot it. The first was relatively simple, and on her third try she managed to insert all fifteen of the bullets--Micah called them "cartridges"--without dropping any. She held it out to him.
"Careful where you point it," he said as the barrel swung in his direction.
"Oh! I'm sorry." She let the barrel drop, until it pointed straight down.
"Best way, until you're sure of yourself, is to unload before handing it over."
Since she was reasonably certain she'd never be that sure of herself, she unloaded the rifle in silence. Remembering his earlier advice, she checked twice to make sure it had no bullets left in it.
"Now, show me how you'd shoot that white rock up there."
"The one we--"
"Yep. Pretend it's a bear and you're hungry for meat."
She raised the rifle and aimed. To her complete chagrin, the barrel wavered and dipped. Even if she knew how to aim it properly, she was certain she'd never manage to shoot that "bear."
He stepped up behind and reached around her, moving her hands on the stock and the barrel, showing her how to nestle the stock into her shoulder. The warmth of him against her back, the faint-pepperminty smell of him, and the low rumble of his deep voice distracted her, until she all but forgot what she was about.
"Hmm?" Try what again, she wondered. "Oh! Yes, of course." She raised the barrel of the rifle and pointed it in the general direction of the white rock. The end of it still drew circles, but they were smaller and more round. She pulled the trigger anyway. If this were real, maybe she'd scare the bear to death.
"Now what do you do?" His breath was warm against her ear.
She wanted to lean back into his embrace. To set the fool rifle aside and turn to face him. She wanted to know what it felt like to be kissed.
"I-I have to cock it, don't I?"
"That's right." He released her and stepped back.
She wanted to follow him. Instead she worked the lever that was supposed to eject the empty shell and push a new bullet into the...the chamber?
"He's mad now. Comin' right at you. What are you going to do?"
She turned around and handed him his rifle. "Here, you take it. I'm going to run."
She married young and had four children, became a bookkeeper, learned accounting, and eventually went back to school to become a botanist, but she always dreamed of telling stories about people who lived in, passed through or settled the Old West. In the meantime, she was fortunate enough to have a job that took her far afield, away from cities and into the back country of most of the western United States. Some of those wild places whispered to her of the people who might have lived there. One long wet winter she decided it was time to put some of those stories down on paper.
The result--so far--includes the ten books and one novella in Judith's "Behind the Ranges" series. She is currently working on another novella in the series, and hasn't come close to running out of people whose stories are worth telling. You can learn more about the series, as well as Judith's other books and shorter stories at www.judithbglad.com.
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