In Defense of Secondary Characters, Those Wonderful People Nobody Loves

By J. Arlene Culiner, author of All About Charming Alice

All About Charming AliceIt’s terrible! Look for a definition of a secondary character and you’ll come up with 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 true! And secondary characters seem to be particularly disliked by many romance publishers. Don’t let 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 (perhaps only temporarily) 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 will make a story move; they show us what’s going on and what folks are saying; and they’re usually necessary to our hero and heroine’s evolution. Secondary characters also 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.

Just think: even Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice, would be fairly dull stuff if we didn’t have brilliantly-drawn secondary characters such as the very foolish Mrs. Bennet and her silly younger daughters, Mary, Lydia and Catherine. Would Mr. Darcy seem half so wonderful without those unpleasant secondary characters: plotting, lying George Wickham; self-righteous, pompous clergyman, William Collins?

So let’s give a cheer for secondary characters. They’re colorful, interesting and droll. Let’s demand them. Let’s defend them. And let’s love them.

Oops… just found another wonderful quote about secondary characters. It’s 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.”

Here’s a scene from my romance, All About Charming Alice, where secondary character, Rose Badger, the community’s femme fatale, is trying to encourage Alice’s love story with Jace. Of course Rose is backed up by the other 51 residents of Blake’s Folly — a bunch of cranky, wild and woolly secondary characters who don’t even try hiding nosiness or glee.

“You bringing Jace to the Get-Together tomorrow?” Rose examined her face in the little mirror she had propped against the coffee cup on Alice’s kitchen table, then pulled a tube of mascara out of her handbag.

“To the Blake’s Folly Annual Get-Together at the Mizpah Hotel?” Alice stared at her friend. “Are you crazy?”

“Not yet. But I’m working on it.” Rose opened her eyes wide, began stroking her lashes with the mascara wand. “So why don’t you invite him then? You might both have fun.”

“No way.” Alice would fight this new idea of Rose’s tooth and nail. “Go there with Jace? He’d hate every minute of it!”

“How do you know he’d hate it?”

“Of course he would. Because Sly Grimes is going to sing and he’s terrible. And the Old Boy’s Band is just about as awful as you can get.”

Rose grinned. “Awful isn’t the word. Try gruesome. Painful.” She dug around in her purse, pulled out a tube of pearly lipstick. “But that isn’t important. What matters is asking him to go someplace with you. That’s a perfect Plan B tactic.”

“Plan B or not, I can’t ask Jace to the Get-Together. He’d never forgive me.” “So what does he expect out here in the desert? Mozart? Beethoven?”

 “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter since I’m not going to ask him anyway.”

“Of course you’re not. You’re too much of a crank to do something simple like asking Jace to a normal country dance in your own normal community

 “Don’t fool yourself. Blake’s Folly is not normal. Just think how everyone will stare. At me. At Jace. It’ll be about as much fun as being on display in a cage at the zoo.”

“Yeah. I know.” Rose screwed the lipstick back down into its tube. “When I told Jane Grimes I was coming over here for coffee this morning, she said the whole village was waiting to see the two of you together. She said that Mick Fletcher told Tony that Lucy Miller spent all her time blabbing about you. She says that the reason nobody ever sees the two of you together is because you and Jace spend all your time holed up here. In bed together. That you’re both living out a deep, intense, obsessive sexual passion.”

Rose stood up, reached for her coat. “So I guess it’s up to you. You want to make a public appearance or just keep all those rumors flying?”

4 thoughts on “In Defense of Secondary Characters, Those Wonderful People Nobody Loves

  1. Brenna Chase

    Great post! Secondary characters round out a a story, and, yes, think clearly when the hormones are flying for the hero and heroine. Plus sometimes they even have more fun. 😉

  2. J. Arlene

    Oh yes, Brenna and Deborah. I’m sure our amusing secondary characters do have more fun. Falling in love can be such a torment, it’s so much easier to watch from the sidelines. And obviously you both enjoy creating secondary characters as much as I do.

  3. Joanna Lloyd

    I always look for interesting secondary characters in a book. They provide the contrast for the main characters and, as Deborah said, make a story so much richer. Great post and loved your excerpt. Thanks for sharing!