by Ann Lethbridge
When I sold to Harlequin, Mills and Boon, one of the things that the editor said was that she loved my secondary characters. So I thought I would share my approach.
For me, secondary character are little glimpses into history, like a bit of sparkle on a Christmas card. Oh, of course you have to have a plot and a romance and a happily ever after, and the hero and heroine have to have proper settings and language and clothing, but I love writing secondary characters, because I get to play. I like to play.
When I talk about secondary characters in this context, I don’t mean the villain, or a principle character who might end up with his or her own book some time. I mean the walk ons.
These secondary characters give you the opportunity delve into life during the period you are writing about without getting all detailed and scholarly. Thus I find it very useful to learn about the ordinary people who inhabit our world.
Yes, you need to get those pesky titles correct, and the right event in the right year, but to bring your world alive, you need to know about the ordinary people and ordinary jobs, many of which do not exist today.
A crossing sweeper for example. He can make a sarcastic remark while the hero dashes across Bond Street. He doesn’t need a lot of air time, an age, a down-at-heel, ragged appearance, a nose wiped on a sleeve, a wry remark as he sweeps away the steaming dollop of dung left by a passing horse. You can almost smell it can’t you? In this way the character brings life to the simple sentence. Lord Snipperty crossed Bond Street when he spotted Lady Snooty.
We are all familiar with the butler or the maid in Regency stories, but I routinely try to seek out characters who can give a flavour of the day. In the Rake’s Inherited Courtesan our intrepid hero asks directions of a French farm hand. We learn through that conversation how things changed during Napoleon’s rule and how they have changed since. He stops swinging his scythe and speak a couple of sentences, makes his own little joke and he shows and tells us a great deal about his life.
An osler in a tavern makes a brief appearance in the same story, kindly, and hardworking, he spares a moment for a rather anxious heroine as he rushes to meet the coaches coming into the courtyard and lead them into the stables.
In the upcoming 2010 book, Wicked Rake, Defiant Mistress, the coachman, and elderly retainer, offers his own brand horse-sense to his master, while later a farmer’s wife shows off her healing skills.
Secondary characters form a backdrop to the main action. They shouldn’t stand out. They can’t steal the scene. It is easy to get carried away with a particularly interesting and vocal secondary character, but just as we don’t have long descriptions of scenery or surroundings, so we can only provide a brief glimpse of the people who populate our world. And of course they should always help move your story forward as well as charm the reader.
I am sure you have all met your favourite secondary character in a book and I would love to hear about them and what made them so interesting to you.
Ann Lethbridge also writes as Michele Ann Young, and you can find her snippets of research posted at her regency ramble blog