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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Add Sparkle with Secondary Characters

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


Lynn Lovegreen said...

As I was reading this, I was thinking about Dickens. He wrote such vivid secondary characters that brought depth to his work, much like the characters you discussed. Glad to hear someone is continuing the tradition!

Jennifer Ross said...

Great post! I must give more attention to these 'walk-on' characters.

Unknown said...

Thanks for dropping in. Glad you found my ideas of interest.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Great blog, Ann. And something for all writers to take note of. Thanks for the info.

Gwynlyn said...

When I first started writing, the comments always included love of my secondary characters. Never the primary. While I appreciated the comments, I realized I had a serious problem. Had to euthanize a few of them, I'm sorry to say. The strength of their personalities refused to yield to their 'betters.' However, their progeny showed up now and again, chastised but not broken.

You make some good points about emphasizing era and social conditions using these characters. While never consciously using them that way, they always seemed to find their niche. One of the reasons I adore writing.

Kathryn Albright said...

I love secondary characters. You are so right--they add sparkle and flavor to the story. Using them to illuminate the setting, time period, politics, mood, etc can really round out a story. I easily add too many, so must be careful about that. (And I find that I want to write ALL their stories too...)

Anonymous said...

Dear Michele,

I enjoyed your blog on secondary characters -- I can indeed picture Lord Snipperty
avoiding dollops of dung! I think Dickens was brilliant at writing secondary characters.
Were you influenced at all by his writing?


criomag said...

Dear Michele,

I enjoyed your blog on secondary characters -- I can indeed picture Lord Snipperty
avoiding dollops of dung! I think Dickens was brilliant at writing secondary characters.
Were you influenced at all by his writing?


Unknown said...

Sharron, you asked if I was influenced by Dickens, and you made me stop and think. Growing up in England, I can recall listening to wonderful enactments of his works on the BBC radio and of course watching many of them on the tv, as well as reading them.
I'm currently watching Little Dorrit - mmmm Matthew MacFadyen
In short, my guess is he had profound influence.
Not that I would ever put myself in the same league.
Thank you for your thoughtful question.

Unknown said...

Gwynlyn and Kathryn, therein lies the joy and the trap.
Walk ons must be only that, and you need them to add depth to your main characters, not vice versa. But you can always cut later if they get away from you!

Patricia Barraclough said...

The little detail of everyday life and the secondary characters really make a big difference in a book for me. The hero and heroine do not live in a vacuum and the story should not be treated that way. How they relate to these situations and characters tells a lot about the main characters.

Unknown said...

couldn't agree more, Pat. :)