Winnie-the-Pooh had Eeyore, Beezus had Ramona, and Charlie Brown had Lucy. Secondary characters play a vital role in a protagonist’s development. Author Cheryl Harper joins us today with pointers on how a supporting cast of characters can enhance your story.
Welcome to RU, Cheryl!
First, thank you, Romance University, for giving me this opportunity to discuss what I’ve learned about how secondary characters improve stories from trial and too much error, two really great editors, and many rounds of revisions. Lots of revisions. Let’s talk about secondary characters.
1. They can surprise you.
Sometimes they come out of nowhere. When I submitted a Valentine’s novella for an open call that became the Avon Impulse Kiss Me anthology, I didn’t think past that one short story. At least, not until the editor asked if I had any more. I did not. But I pitched three ideas all set at the same imaginary Rock’n’Rolla Hotel. In one of those synopses, I named the owner, Willodean Jackson. Then the proposals were accepted, and I had to figure out who Willodean was. The most important questions: What kind of person builds a hotel dedicated to Elvis? And why? Over the course of three books (Stuck on You, Can’t Help Falling in Love, and Santa, Bring My Baby Back), three romances, three hot heroes, and three strong heroines, I’ve had the luxury of time and word count (and revisions) to get to know Willodean.
2. Secondary characters are people too.
How many times have you watched a show where it’s clear one character exists only to deliver the punch line or the alibi? Or maybe you reach the end of a story and new character pops up to save the mission so you think “hello, hero of next book.” If they haven’t been developed, characters like this can stop me in my tracks.
So why do we have secondary characters? They move the story along. Otherwise, they need to go. Right? They act. But just like the hero and heroine, they act…why? What’s their motivation? This is a lesson I had to learn. In my Harlequin Heartwarming title, A Minute on the Lips, I had to answer this question several times (with revisions). If they story had been limited to one chapter, it might be fine for my secondary character Jackie, the diner owner, to be a literary Yosemite Sam. To expand that one chapter to a book, I gave him a wife. And I felt good about that! Even with a wedding ring, he was still a cartoon. Then my editor pushed and questioned and suggested and I finally figured it out. I knew him, what he feared, what he loved, what made him act the way he did. Some of that appears on the page, but much of it is only in my head. It’s all necessary to make flat characters come to life.
3. Secondary characters are critical to a realistic world-building.
Does the reader care whether your secondary characters prefer coffee or tea (or Diet Coke which is really the only reasonable answer)? Not always, but there are ways to build dimension without losing precious word count. How a character speaks, dresses, and reacts to your hero and heroine complete the picture you’re drawing. In my Rock’n’Rolla Hotel books, I know that Willodean drinks ginger ale, always wears green, and she speaks with a bit of Tennessee in her voice. So does the reader. Other characters, like the bartender or the Elvis impersonator, show up only because they complete the scene, but through small details readers can see real people. The bartender doesn’t wear the uniform so she’s not really into rules, and the impersonator drinks too much but the other characters try to save him from himself so he matters to them.
The television show Castle is a great example of how secondary characters make a world real. Richard Castle is my television boyfriend. I love this show, and the supporting characters don’t have a lot of depth, especially for as long as we’ve watched them. Esposito and Ryan are definitely three-dimensional characters, but they exist to provide information to solve the case. Alexis and Castle’s mom make Castle more lovable. But Castle and Beckett solve the cases. And rarely do any of them change how the relationship between Castle and Beckett develops, but they’re drawn well enough to give us the clues we need as a part of the story and add depth to the hero and heroine in a very believable world.
4. But sometimes they’re critical to the story.
In the Rock’n’Rolla Hotel series, Willodean Jackson is important beyond filling out the background. Who she is, her history and her motivations, have an impact on the main characters and everyone who enters the hotel. As always, word count matters. How much room you have for these secondary characters will in some ways dictate what you can do, but so will your plan.
Over the course of six seasons, there’s been time to develop the secondary characters of Castle further. There have been flashes, but the show’s structure defines the purpose of these characters. One crime is solved in one hour. The developing relationship between Castle and Beckett is the link. This limits the roles of the secondary characters, and they fit perfectly within those limits.
As a contrast, Sleepy Hollow has built up the secondary characters with strong motivations and the potential to change the hero and heroine and the outcome of the story from the beginning. If we compare how much we know of Captain Frank Irving and Abbie’s sister Jenny now to Esposito (with whom I would definitely not mind getting better acquainted) after six Castle seasons, we see secondary characters with different purposes. Jenny and Irving fill up the world, but they may also have the potential to change it.
Irving, at first, seemed a little sinister in his opposition to Ichabod Crane and Lieutenant Abbie Mills, the main characters, but now that we have some of his history, we can understand his reluctance to believe and insistence on rules. He wants a quiet job. He wants time with his daughter. He wants to be the man his ex needs, but duty calls. His role goes beyond filling in the background. Not all of the other characters are as fully developed. Ichabod’s wife, Katrina, pops up when viewers need some history or spooky lore and then recedes. Right now, she’s a handy device to move the story, the kind that pulls me out because I can see the gears at work. Given enough time (or word count), Sleepy Hollow can fix the Katrina problem, but her development will depend on her role in the story. And no matter, I will watch to spend time with Ichabod Crane. Those are words I never thought I would type.
5. Saying good-bye can be bittersweet.
The last book in the Rock’n’Rolla Hotel series, Santa, Bring My Baby Back, is on sale now. The love story between Willodean’s son and the failed gold digger he can’t ignore was fun to write. I’ve had a great time writing each hero and heroine in the series. But I’m going to miss this surprise secondary character who popped up as a name on a synopsis. I’m fighting the urge to write an epilogue just to spend more time with Willodean. She held the series together, explained the world I built, created a thread to connect all the characters, and provided both a caring and humorous voice to help me share the message I didn’t even know I had. For Willodean, home and family have less to do with a place or birth, and everything to do with sharing yourself with the people you love. My goal is to leave every reader with a smile. Willodean Jackson does exactly that.
What do you think makes a strong secondary character? Who does them really well?
Join us on Friday, December 20th, when Adrienne Giordano presents: Building an Alpha
Avon Impulse is proud to announce the publication of SANTA, BRING MY BABY BACK, the last installment in Cheryl Harper’s Rock’n’Rolla Hotel series, just in time for the holiday season. In the final book, readers will fall in love with this lovable cast of characters who make up the staff at the funky Elvis-themed hotel—especially their latest, unexpected hire.
After trying her hand at acting, modeling, dog grooming, and a dozen other odd-jobs, fortune hunter Grace Andersen thought for sure she’d nab a rich man. But dumped in a Memphis hotel chapel and strapped for cash? Grace needs a Christmas miracle—and a job—fast!
In walks Grace’s real-life hero to save the day: straight-laced Charlie McMinn, the hotel chapel’s Elvis-impersonating officiant who, as of late, has had a hard time of getting into the holiday spirit. For him, Grace is a breath of fresh air. And when she asks for his help, Charlie decides to stick around his mother’s hotel a little bit longer…especially if it means helping Grace get settled.
With a rocky start to their relationship, Grace isn’t too sure what to think of sexy, resilient Charlie, except that she can’t deny the attraction between them, or how good it feels to finally fit in somewhere. As a can-do gal with a strong personality, she’ll have to choose whether she’s ready to give Memphis a chance—and if she’ll surrender to a love that tugs at the heartstrings. SANTA, BRING MY BABY BACK is a feel-good story filled with Harper’s trademark ingredients: humor, passion, charm and quick wit—with a dash of The King, of course!
Bio: Whether she’s writing, reading, or just checking the items off of her daily to-do list, small-town girl CHERYL HARPER loves her romance mixed with a little laughter. When she’s not working, you will find her ignoring housework, cursing yard work, and spending way too much time with a television remote in her hand. To learn more about Cheryl, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule Dec 16-20
- The Primary Purpose of Secondary Characters by Reese Ryan
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