Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to Engage Your Reader With Memorable Secondary Characters

Caroline Clemmons believes in strong heroes and heroines, but she also believes that secondary characters are important in a novel. She is a Texas author and an active member of the RWA and Yellow Rose RWA. It is my pleasure to welcome Caroline to our blog. Welcome Caroline!-Ruby Johnson

by Caroline Clemmons

Part of the fun of writing is creating interesting, quirky secondary characters. Unlike the hero and heroine, secondary characters don’t have to be bigger than life. As authors we can play around with these guys and make them zany or annoying or heroic.

 Caution—carefully balance creating characters that are memorable and interesting without letting them steal the spotlight from the hero and heroine. A good secondary character exposes the best qualities of the hero/heroine. The secondary character also encourages the hero/heroine. In a crisis, the secondary character may mediate.

Let’s take a moment and think of some famous secondary characters in film and print. Here are a few I remember:

  • Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto;

  •  Batman and Robin;

  • Robert B. Parker’s Spencer and Hawk;

  •  Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes;

  • Captain Hatings and Hercule Poirot

  • Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz
 You can add many more duos to this list, I’m sure. The characters I listed above provide different qualities to the story. Tonto ( which means stupid), for instance, is a trusted confidante—almost a partner—but the poor man also functioned as maid, cook, and messenger. Who doesn’t know the term Kemosabe? We aren’t sure what it means, but we know by whom it was spoken and to whom. Tonto’s job was hard and definitely not politically correct by today’s standards. At the time the stories began, however, Tonto’s presence emphasized that the Lone Ranger was open-minded and fair.
Currently, Batman is a mentor to Robin. Before the movies about them, the television series starring Adam West as Batman focused attention back to this comic book duo. In the movies, Robin has been portrayed with more backbone, but he’s still a secondary character.

The multi-purpose assistant is a common theme in crime stories, cozies, and romantic suspense. Late mystery writer Robert B. Parker’s Hawk is one of my favorites. Since main character Spencer has to abide by the rules to keep his P.I. license, Hawk is the go-to guy for gray areas. Hawk is not afraid to cross the line—any line.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum who has her policeman boyfriend Joe Morelli to consult on legal as well as cozy matters. Ranger, though, can get things done with no-questions-asked. After ONE FOR THE MONEY in which Lula was brutally victimized, she and Grandma Mazur are the fun type of secondary characters authors love to write—and read.

Ethel Mertz was a reluctant partner-in-chaos who functioned as a calming influence when Lucille Ball overreacted—which was always! Ethel couldn’t keep Lucy out of trouble, but she tried at the same time she was Lucy’s best friend. Ethel is a perfect secondary character for one of today’s romantic comedies. There are too many terrific romantic comedies in print to list them here.

The secondary characters on whom I am concentrating today are (1) the confidante/best friend, (2) those who facilitate the plot/mentor the hero/heroine, or (3) those who can turn into a leading character in the next book of a series. Not that it’s necessary that secondary characters fall into one of these categories. Each book is peopled with characters that serve various functions, and one character might serve multiple functions, as does Mildred Vandermeer in my current paranormal time travel, OUT OF THE BLUE.

In your story, no matter how secretive the hero or heroine, there might be one person who advises and mentors the protagonist. I’ll use “Sleepless In Seattle” since you’ve probably all seen that movie. As well as being her supervisor, Rosie O’Donnell is confidante/best friend to Meg Ryan. Tom Hanks has Rob Reiner in the friend role, plus Tom also has his son urging him to action. The confidante/best friend allows the exposition of details that would be boring in narrative or an info dump. They provide the opportunity for humor, such as when Rob Reiner explains modern dating to Tom Hanks, or when hundreds of letters arrive because of Tom Hanks’ son. Ethel Mertz also falls into the confidante category, as would most best-friend characters. Yet the confidante does not know everything about the hero’s/heroine’s thoughts and desires.

A facilitator/mentor might be a priest, minister, or family friend. A protagonist goes to the facilitator when seeking help with a decision or quest. A facilitator might be off-stage in guise of a benefactor whose legacy is the inciting incident. Jodi Thomas’ TWISTED CREEK springs to mind. The main character, Allie, inherits a lakeside home/store in a small community from a man she’d never met or heard of. Her arrival launches this wonderful story set in West Texas near my hometown of Lubbock. The mentor helps the hero/heroine become a better person or excel in a particular way or fulfill their purpose. Your hero or heroine might even have memories pop into his or her head of a deceased mentor’s advice. If this is the case, keep flashbacks short and at a minimum number or you’ll lose readers.

Series are always interesting because they give readers a chance to continue with secondary characters they love. In book one, Jake could be the hero’s brother or best friend—or even the guy who loses the heroine. In the next book, Jake becomes the hero, but readers continue to learn about the couple from the first book. In a third book, perhaps Jake’s business partner becomes the hero. Sometimes authors who didn’t plan a series receive such a good reaction to a secondary character they write a linked book. I’m fortunate to have this situation in my upcoming September historical release, THE TEXAN’S IRISH BRIDE. My editor asked for a follow up book focused on the heroine’s older brother, Finn O’Neill. If you plan a series, create several secondary characters that are worthy of his/her books with your series’ future books in mind.

Create secondary characters that interest the reader, but be careful they don’t steal the show from the hero and heroine! That’s why they’re called “secondary characters.”

To thank those who comment today, I’ll choose one person who comments as a winner of a PDF file of my June release, the paranormal time travel OUT OF THE BLUE, from The Wild Rose Press. Don’t forget to include your email with your comment.

You may contact Caroline at


Anonymous said...

How many characters are too many for a story, in your opinion? And how many are too few? Can you have a whole romance novel without the couple talking to anyone else?

Anonymous said...

In a recent series by a well known writer, I found myself more interested in the secondary characters than the main characters. What suggestions do you have to keep them from "stealing the show"?

Lacy said...

I love writing for my secondary characters. They contribute so much to the story. How dull it would be to have only two people in your book. The way I see it is we are the main characters in our own life so it would be pretty boring to go through life alone.

Jeff Turner said...

A secondary character is like a "secret ingredien" in cooking. A dash of this or that can turn an ordinary dish into something special. Thus a great secondary character can complete a literary meal so to speak, making a mere meal a real feast.

Caroline Clemmons said...

To answer Anonymous, yes, I think you could have an entire novel with only the hero and herioine, but it would take an extremely talented writer to sustain the story without other influences. What springs to mind is one in which the hero and heroine must pull together to battle a common foe while solving their personal differences. Perhaps a snowbound story, for instance, would be an example--where the setting actually becomes a third character.

Caroline Clemmons said...

To Ruby CRNA, that's a tough question. It's so much fun to write zany secondary characters that it's hard to keep them from being more memorable than the h/h. Hopefully, this wasn't my book. LOL The answer, I think, is to make the h/h so dynamic, that they keep the readers attention focused on them.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Lacy and Jeff, I completely agree. Secondary characters add spice to the plot recipe.

Bobbye Terry said...

Good insight, Carolyn. In the commerical fiction/suspense series I'm writing, one of my secondary characters, the younger heroine's friend (I have a double romance--younger heroine and older main character/heroine) is the heroine of the second book, while the older heroine's friend/confidante gets an even bigger role in book three. So I think you're right on the money, as is your new book, "Out of the Blue."

Bobbye Terry

Earl Staggs said...

Caroline, I've always been conscious of the importance of secondary characters, but you did a terrific job of putting it into words. Back in the cowboy movies I grew up with, they were called "sidekicks" when Gabby rode with Roy and Pancho trailed behind Cisco. Personally, I always hoped Cheetah would have his own series. Thanks for a great article which should be helpful to all writers.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Bobbye, Thanks for your comment. I hope to get to read your series! Good luck with it.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Earl, loved those sidekicks. Actually I think Cheetah did have his own movies . . . no, wait, those were "King Kong" and "Planet of the Apes," my mistake. LOL Thanks for stopping by.

Kathy said...

I love the secondary characters in Nora Roberts books and especially in her In Death series writing as JD Robb. The secondary people are funny and make it interesting for the hero and heroine. In the story I won a contest with the hero had a fellow TX Ranger and the heroine had her best friend since childhood. I've been working on a story and I just added someone for the heroine haven't gotten someone for the hero. I'm not sure he needs one but I decided my heroine needed a g/f.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Kathy, All us heroines need girl friends, don't we? A guy needs someone to confide in, too. Continued good luck with your writing. A Texas Ranger book sounds right up my alley.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I use my secondary characters to help move my hero and heroine around in the story, to help explain what is happening and as a support system. I love stories that bring characters back in other stories, too.

Great blog, Caroline... Throught stimulating.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Thanks, Paisley. I appreciate you stopping by.

katsrus said...

Hi Caroline. Followed you over from your blog. I really enjoy secondary characters. They can really add to a books enjoyment. Really enjoyed your post.
Sue B

Caroline Clemmons said...

Thanks, Sue. I appreciate your comment.

vikkilwright said...

Caroline, I loved the article.

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