Playing second string, or, the importance of supporting players

Much attention has been given on this blog to main characters, their GMC (Goals, Motivation and Conflict), their character traits, and their story arc. What, then, of secondary characters and the supporting roles they play?

Like your hero and heroine, secondary characters need to serve a purpose in your manuscript. Following are some common secondary character types in romantic fiction, and their examples from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

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The Comic Relief

When the going gets tough for the H/H, this character provides levity. The wise-cracking little brother, the brutally-honest best friend, the class clown. This person is often the wisest character in the story.  Whenever this character appears, he should make the reader (and hopefully your H/H) laugh. Mr. Bennet 

The Moral Compass

Big sister, parent, grandparent, religious leader, or just a good and honest friend. This person helps the H/H to make the right decision, whether it seems to be in their best interest or not.  Jane Bennet.

The Broad Shoulder

This is the person your H/H goes to when he needs support or just a good cry. Often the best friend, who, while well-intentioned, may end up steering the H/H in the wrong direction. Also Jane.

The Motivator

The person who gives your H/H a metaphorical “swift kick” when needed. Lydia Bennet Wickham

The Naysayer

The voice of doom and gloom, who predicts nothing good for the H/H. Usually it’s when the H/H rebels against this person that the goal is met.  Lady Catherine de Bourgh

The Antagonist

The person who gets in the way of the H/H and their happily ever after. In romance, this is often the ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, gold-digger, or ex-spouse. It can also be the villain in a romantic suspense novel.  Caroline Bingley 

 

The danger when writing secondary characters is in putting in too many of them. We understand your Hero and Heroine don’t live in a vacuum, but actually, usually live in a town with other people. However, readers don’t need to become acquainted with every single townsperson. Secondary characters should be limited to only those people who help to move the plot forward. The above is a list of general categories.  Sometimes, it is wise to write a secondary character who can serve more than one purpose, for example, Jane Bennet, who is the Broad Shoulder and the Moral Compass for Lizzy.

Which brings to mind another point…depth. Just because a character is secondary, it doesn’t mean he or she should be a cardboard cutout. Comic Relief is a whole lot funnier if we know more about him than that he can fire off a one-liner.  Make sure that, especially if this character appears only sporadically, you give him a “tell”…that action, tic, or physical characteristic that reminds the reader just who this character is. Give him a shock of red hair that shoots straight up, or a cocky smile in a freckled face, and we have a much clearer picture of this friend.

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Years ago, I took a writing course with The Institute of Children’s Literature, and they provided this minor character profile prompt:

Physical description, including height, gestures, facial expressions and clothing.

Psychological makeup – a general description of the character’s personality.

Major characteristic or dominant trait

Physical tag, like a mannerism or nervous habit

Voice or vocal tag (the character with a vocal tag that immediately comes to mind is Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain)

Characterizing type of activity: what a character does differently from the way the other characters view him, i.e. the extroverted clown who is shy and insecure on the inside

Self-image, or how the character views himself. Mister Collins of Pride and Prejudice has a highly-inflated view of himself, which adds to the comic element of this book (and also the exasperation factor!).

In short, don’t sell your secondary characters short. They deserve to be three-dimensional, and, like everyone, they want to serve a purpose. Do them justice, and your story will be the better for it. An added bonus…if you write them fully, readers fall in love with the secondary characters and want their stories too. Series are selling these days, and you may just write yourself the hero for your next book.

So now it’s your turn. Who is your favorite secondary character, in books, tv or film, and what purpose does he or she serve? Is there a series of books you go to, time after time, like Jill Shalvis’ Lucky Harbor novels, because all of the characters seem like old friends? Please dish!

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20 Comments

  1. Jaye, I always get such a kick out of a fab secondary character. And I agree, the best friend makes for a perfect follow-up hero or heroine in a series. You get a taste, and can’t wait to read that book and really get to know them and enjoy their HEA….I also love the quirky characters who pop up through a series, even though you know they’ll never have their own book. The one that comes immediately to mind is the old woman who occupies a barstool now and then at Jack’s Bar, in the Robyn Carr Virgin River Series. Can’t think of name at this second, but she’s funny, and crass, and the impetus for getting that little town what/who it needs….she’s both comic relief and motivator, I’d say, even though she’s got a bit part.
    Fab post, thanks, Jaye!

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  July 1, 2013

      Love the old women…like the Holy Rollers in the Kristan Higgins books. Or the grandmother in Kathleen Long’s new book, Changing Lanes. Their wisdom is great, and they can be unfiltered because at their age, they don’t give a hoot anymore. Funny!

      Reply
  2. Hi Jaye,

    Great post! I love secondary characters. I find them much easier to write than the hero and heroine. And like Jenna said, I love the quirky ones who pop up, even though they’re not meant for their own story. My favorites tend to be the older, unmarried relatives who make snarky comments throughout. 🙂 Think P.D. Wodehouse. Peabody from the In Death series is one of my favorites, too.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  3. Jaye Marie Rome

     /  July 1, 2013

    Yup, me too, Joanna. Like Betty White popping up in my romance novels. Who doesn’t love Betty White, right? 🙂

    Reply
  4. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  July 2, 2013

    Hi Jaye, I LOVE This post! Love your look at the secondary characters and of course your use of P&P, a true staple in my reading library. Like Joanna said, sometime the secondary characters are sometimes easier to write than the H/H. Often, I find the setting can become a secondary character in a story as well. In writing my Contemporary Series, I finished the first book and literally went to bed that night thinking how much I was going to miss the town and its people, then sprung to life, jumped out of bed, and hit the keyboard with the idea of book two using two secondary characters as my H/H. Honestly, I did not intend to write their story. In writing the first, I didn’t even KNOW they had a story.

    As for a great comic character (Difficult to top Mr. B and Mr. Collins from P&P!) Grandma Mazur from Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books comes to mind. She is NUTs and I love the complications her actions create for Stephanie…not that Stephanie needs any help in that department!

    RoseAnn

    Reply
    • RoseAnn, I don’t know of a romance writer who doesn’t love P&P, and when searching for a novel most people have read, this one is always first in line! It’s awesome when secondary characters become so vivid, you just have to write their story. Even, as you said, when you don’t realize it until later.

      Honestly, I wonder how an author doesn’t end up writing a series sometimes. Well written secondary characters just beg for their own stories!

      As you said, and as editors have often pointed out, setting is an important character that lurks in every story. If the setting isn’t painted well, the story might just as well happen anywhere, right? Good point!

      J

      Reply
  5. Hi Jaye, Great post. I always love the comic relief characters, who balance out the seriousness of the main character and the drama unfolding around them. I just watched IDENTITY THEFT. No, I’m not recommending it. But, it was your classic case of the straight-laced main character and his “sidekick” funny guy-who was played by one of the actresses in BRIDESMAIDS, which was hysterical. You need to give the reader a break from all the seriousness with a bit of humor, and visa versa.

    Interesting post. Michele

    Reply
    • Michele, I haven’t seen IDENTITY THEFT, although I love Jason Bateman. Wasn’t the “sidekick” actually the other main character in that movie, though? Or are you talking about someone else?

      I do agree, the comic relief characters are the ones I always remember most. Who doesn’t like a good laugh?

      On another topic, congrats on your progress on the next ms. Can’t wait to read it!

      Reply
  6. Laura Felis Quinn

     /  July 3, 2013

    My favorites are from Gone with the Wind. And perhaps there were too many in that book because all are so fabulous! How do you choose a favorite among Melanie Wilkes, Sue Ellen O’hara (I lean in her favor, especially in the book – movie did not capture her meanness factor), Aunt Pitty, India Wilkes, the two children that never even made it to the movie, Charles Hamilton, Belle Watling (LOVE HER) and the list just keeps on going. . .

    Reply
    • Laura, I love your choice! Especially since you make a great point…books allow authors to paint a much fuller character than movies, since you have all those pages to do it in! Even in P&P, you don’t always get a full character depiction from the movie version, although there are several excellent ones. I imagine there are countless other minor characters from books who get scant attention when they are transformed into screen characters.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  7. Mia

     /  July 3, 2013

    Hello Jaye

    Julia Quinn’s Lady Danbury is one of my favorite secondary characters. She appears in many of Quinn’s books and is a fan favorite. The banging of her cane and watching grown men wince when she speaks is a classic. Her relationship with her grandson are some of my favorite scenes in It’s in His Kiss.

    Mia

    Reply
    • Hi, Mia! I haven’t read Julia Quinn’s books. I’ll have to put her on my list. Your description makes me think of Angela Lansbury in the revival of A Little Night Music. If Lady Danbury is anything like Dame Angela, I would love her! Thanks for stopping by!

      Jaye

      Reply
  8. Hi Jaye. I completely agree about the importance of secondary characters in a story. Like RoseAnn mentioned, Grandma Mazur is the first who popped into my mind. Others like Kramer in Seinfeld, and even Newman and Puddy are fun secondary characters.

    Secondary characters can be a great lead in to another book in the series. I like to explore the depth of one or two secondary characters and provide some hint about their background (and conflict) that will eventually lead to that character’s own story.

    Reply
    • Maria, you do that so well…every time I read one of your manuscripts, I want to know more about another of the characters. With the emphasis on series and trilogies these days, people, like you, who can do that well have a leg up on the competition.

      Hugs!

      Reply
  9. Hi Jaye! I also took the Institute of Children’s Literature course..eons ago. I love secondary characters as well as great secondary plots in books. Diana Gabaldon comes to my mind (she’s one of my ultimate favorites). Lord John in her Outlander series plays such an intergral part in the hero and heroine’s journey in those books.
    Great post! Nicole (who took a break from Con stuff to visit the Femmes…finally..) 🙂

    Reply
  10. Hi, Nicole! I didn’t know you took a course with ICL. Keri Mikulski did, too, isn’t that funny? Oh, and be careful about starting me on the Outlander series…best ever! Have you been following the casting call for the film? That series is so beloved, they have to find the PERFECT actor and actress to play Jamie and Claire.

    You’re doing a great job with the conference…you go, girl!

    Reply
  11. hieubietusa

     /  July 25, 2013

    Nice post…as usual your words should they be in print or from your voice are very informative. Your checklist is right on the money…how would you describe Bo Bo’s mannerisms and habits?

    Reply
    • Thanks for your kind words, Joe!

      Bo Bo is just sweet. Who wouldn’t fall in love with him and want to protect him? I can’t wait to see how you develop him as a leading character.

      Reply

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