In Defense of Secondary Characters
Those wonderful people nobody loves
J. Arlene Culiner
Just search for the definition of a secondary character, and you’ll find 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 it’s quite wonderful — from poet, Tony Hoagland: ‘The glory of the protagonist is always paid for by a lot of secondary characters.’
How right he is! And secondary characters seem to be particularly disliked by many romance publishers. Don’t let your 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 usually 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… 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 will be 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 makes the story move; they show us what’s really going on and what folks are saying; and they’re often necessary to our hero and heroine’s evolution. Secondary characters 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.
Even Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice, would be pretty dull stuff if we didn’t have her brilliantly-drawn secondary characters. The very foolish Mrs. Bennett, and her silly younger daughters, Mary, Lydia and Catherine, put Elizabeth in the limelight. Would Mr. Darcy seem half so wonderful without the plotting, lying George Wickham, or the self-righteous, pompous clergyman, William Collins?
So let’s give a cheer for secondary characters. They’re colorful, interesting, and droll. Let’s demand, and defend them. And, let’s love them.
And, just to prove my point, here’s another wonderful quote about secondary characters 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.”
This excerpt is from my romance, A Swan’s Sweet Song. My heroine, country singer Sherry Valentine is trying to convince her agent, the secondary character Charlie Bacon, to stop interfering in her life, but she soon finds herself surrounded by a lot of other secondary characters:
Sherry watched him with growing anguish. Charlie with a plan was a man obsessed, and neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night would stay him from his appointed goal. Perhaps pretending indifference was the best tactic? Or a silly diversion of some kind?
“Guess what, Charlie? Inside information has it there’s a surplus of Easter bunny costumes here in Midville. How about a concert in drag?” Had she been a little heavy on the champagne?
Charlie snorted but didn’t bat an eyelid. “All depends on the color. The “Boys” look like hell in pink. Find horse costumes and you’re on.”
“Horses? Did I hear you talking about horses?” A tall and lusty-looking rancher had moved in. Towering over Sherry, his hot eyes traveled, with precision, over her figure in the tight jeans and fringed shirt. He licked his lips in an equine way.
Two seconds later, an older state senator had also appeared and was soon trying to convince Sherry that connecting up would be an excellent idea. Right now, though, he seemed particularly interested in a connection with her left ear lobe.
“We’ll spend the day out at my place tomorrow,” the rancher insisted. “I’ll pick you up at two. Dress for riding and you’ll see the finest countryside this area has to offer. And I own all of it.” His leer left little doubt about what he hoped the day’s activities really would be.
"I’m terrified of horses,” said Sherry. At least that was true enough.
“If we just slip away,” the senator whispered. He was standing so close, if she turned, they’d do mouth-to-mouth respiration. “I know just the place for a very intimate dinner.”
“Sounds great, Senator. Charlie Bacon and my “Boys” will be thrilled to bits. They love eating and they’re heavily into intimacy.”
“No one could be afraid of horses.” The rancher chuckled.
Sherry shook her head with mock sorrow. “Childhood trauma. My uncle once called my aunt an old nag, and she broke his leg with one swing of her left hoof, size ten.”
The senator pushed another glass into her hand. “Sexy ears. Anyone ever tell you that?”
“Only male rabbits.”
“I raise the best beef cattle this side of the country,” the rancher cut in. “Wait until you see the size and quality of the steak I’m going to feed you.”
“Sorry. Steak’s out. I’m a vegetarian.”
The rancher stopped, thrown off his stride for a minute. “You must be joking.”
“Absolutely not,” Sherry answered soberly. “I believe in animal rights.”
“But animals hunt other animals down.” The rancher guffawed triumphantly.
“Show me a cow that hunts, and I’ll eat my hat. Or a steak, if it comes down to it.”
“Miss Valentine prefers chewing hay. She confided that to me yesterday evening.” The voice, deep and lazy, sliced into the conversation. Carston.
Sherry turned. How long had he been standing there? Those remarkable grey eyes were dancing. So he’d been watching her and her predicament with open, raw amusement. She felt absolutely blissful.
Blurb, A Swan's Sweet Song:
The instant Sherry and Carston meet, there's desire and fascination in the air...but they're complete opposites.
Smart-talking Sherry Valentine has fought her way up from poverty to stardom as a country music singer. Now, ever in the limelight and surrounded by clamoring fans, male admirers, and paparazzi, her spangled cowboy boots carry her from one brightly lit stage to the next. But Sherry's been on the star circuit for far too long, and she wants a change: is it too late for her to begin an acting career?
A renowned, but reclusive playwright, Carston Hewlett cherishes his freedom, the silence of the deep woods surrounding his home, and his solitary country walks. Long-term commitments have been out of the question for many years, so why is he so fascinated by a flashy country music singer? Perhaps a very short, but passionate, fling will resolve the problem.
When their names are linked in the scandal press, and Sherry's plans to become an actress are revealed, Carston is furious. Is their budding relationship doomed?
A Swan’s Sweet Song is available in paperback, as an ebook and audiobook.
|J. Arlene Culiner|
Web site: http://www.j-arleneculiner.com
Storytelling Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/j-arlene-culiner
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/jarlene.culiner