Secondary Doesn't Mean Second Rate
Characterization is not my strong suit. Plots tend to come to my mind more quickly than people, and I have to work really hard to turn them into people and not just back stories. I’m in the planning stage of a new story right now, and so I’ve been doing my due diligence. I think I’ve got my hero, heroine and villain figured out. Their personalities and profiles are all set to go.
But this story requires several secondary characters. A blind sister for the hero and a troupe of vaudeville refugees for the heroine. Not to mention a slew of suspects and henchmen. I’m a touch nervous.
I’ve noticed that in many stories, the secondary characters are little more than props. They serve a functional purpose, but only to force the action of the plot or provide someone to talk so that there can be dialogue instead of narrative.
In other tales the secondary characters are so vivid they are more interesting than the protagonists. They steal the show. Maybe that’s why pundits suggest not including children or dogs in novels.
Either one of the traps are easy to fall into. I’ll walk the tightrope to the best of my ability. If I don’t get the balance right the first time… well, that’s what rewrites are for.
All of this got me thinking about some of my favorite secondary characters. Here, in no particular order are a few of them:
Marilla Cuthbert (Anne of Green Gables)-Despite her crusty exterior, she grows to love Anne as fiercely as a mother, even when she doesn’t understand the girl a lick.
Ramses Emerson (The Ameila Peabody Mysteries)-Especially as a child, his clear headed, precociousness made such a delightful foil to his parents. He is such an interesting amalgam of the two of them.
Fagin (Oliver Twist)-Now some would say he’s the villain, but I think the real villain of that story is Bill Sykes. Why is he a favorite? Because he isn’t all bad, just trapped by circumstances and his own weakness. Without him and the Artful Dodger, Oliver would have starved on the streets before he could complete his rags to riches story. Even if you don’t like him, you’ve got to admit he’s a memorable character.
Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)-Here’s a tale of character so compelling he demanded his own story. But first he played second fiddle to Tom Sawyer. Either way he’s an irrepressible scamp and I love him for it.
Dr. John Watson (The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries)-Without good old Dr. Watson, there’s no way we could relate to Sherlock. But because Watson likes him and stands in awe of his talent, so do we. He’s absolutely critical to the success of those stories.
Who are your favorite secondary characters? What novel was like baby bear and got it “just right?”