Monday, September 23, 2013

Secondary but not Second Rate

By Lisa Karon Richardson

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. This is especially true when it comes to secondary characters.  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. But they aren’t three dimensional in their own right.
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.

Fagan (Oliver Twist)-Now some would say he’s the villain, but I think the 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?” 

Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, LISA KARON RICHARDSON’S early stories were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now, even though she’s (mostly) grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Vanishing Act, the second in the Charm and Deceit, series co-authored with Jennifer AlLee, is coming September 2013. She also has a novella coming out September, 2013 from Barbour entitled “Midnight Clear,” part of the Mistletoe Memories collection.


  1. Interesting post, Lisa! I am better with characterization than plot.

    I love secondary characters who steal the show. They can let loose in ways the H/H can't always do. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice are so irritating and hilarious, much like Effie in Hunger Games. Ron Weasley gets a lot of the good lines in Harry Potter.

    Just finished Julianna Deerings's Rules of Murder, where secondary character Nick is fun, such a doll. :)

  2. I enjoy secondary characters. A lot of times they can be more colorful and even more outrageous than the MC. They can say what the MC perhaps would like to but can't because MC needs to fit a certain type of character (romantic hero for example). SCs can also talk to the MC with brutal honesty when needed to make him see the world or himself with new eyes.

    I'm so glad you like Nick, Susie! He's fun to write and never takes himself too seriously. He's starting to hint that he wants a story of his own though, so we'll see what happens.

  3. Great suggestions, Susie. All of those are great secondary characters. Effie took awhile for me though before she was rounded out.

  4. DeAnna, I think you're right. Flamboyant characters can sometimes be overpowering as a MC, but can be just right as a secondary character.

  5. This is a great question, Lisa. All the secondary characters I can think of right now have gone on to have their own story.

    I have yet to come up with one that is universal. I think my brain is still muddled from conference. Thinking seems to be a lot of work!

  6. I have internet service for a few minutes while the train is stopped! Yay!

    Great post, Lisa. Huck Finn is one of my favorite secondary characters. I was thinking about him last night, isn't that strange? Especially considering you took my post for me since I'm on the train?

    I love secondary characters, and they do often steal my heart. One who got it just right, in my opinion, is Lee Goldberg. In Monk, the tv series, he had his secondary characters just right. In Monk, the books, Natalie - a secondary character, was suddenly the narrator, and by rights now a main character. I worried about how that would translate, and it was perfect.

  7. Deb, some of the best secondary characters clamor for their own story.

  8. That's funny Suzie Jo. Huck was just too good a character not to let him have his on story.

  9. I've been thinking about this. Most of my favorite secondaries are pretty obscure. I especially had in mind a legless, armless woman in a Lisa Samson book. Loved her. I was also thinking yesterday how a last minute secondary I added to my novel releasing next month really stole my heart. I keep trying to figure out how I can fit him into a sequel.


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