I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite romance classics lately. I always notice something useful when I do this. I’m always struck by some piece of the author’s genius that I can then try to bring to my own writing.
The book I’m reading right now is NINE COACHES WAITING, by Mary Stewart. Do you know it? It’s a gem of a book, with a breathtakingly romantic love story between a simple English governess and a dashing heir of an enigmatic French aristocrat. It’s also an exciting mystery about who is trying to kill the lonely little boy the governess has agreed to care for. And, icing on the cake, it’s also a sublimely written introduction to the beauties of the Haute-Savoie region of France.
About a hundred valuable writing lessons lie in NINE COACHES WAITING. But the one that struck me this time was how important good secondary characters are to your story.
In NINE COACHES WAITING, the little boy, Philippe, is so adorable without ever being saccharine, so poignant without ever lapsing into bathos, that you fall in love with him almost instantly. All the secondary characters in this book are equally fascinating, whether good guys or bad. They’re so complete, individuated, and precisely drawn, that their fictional world becomes as solid to me as the one I’m actually living in.
Stewart’s brilliance made me think about other books in which the secondary characters are incredibly rich and add greatly to the main story. The first one that came to mind was Harry Potter. Could Harry’s world ever seem so real without Snape or Dumbledore or Mrs. Weasley?
I just saw Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The quirky Red and White Queens, the Mad Hatter, and, of course, the ever-popular Cheshire Cat have always nearly overshadowed poor little Alice. Certainly, without them, she would have no story at all.
And then there’s Pirates of the Caribbean…a movie, of course, but still a fictional world. In that one, it’s almost hard to judge who is the secondary character. Is it the love interest, Orlando Bloom? Or is it the whacky pirate, Johnny Depp? Maybe that’s another lesson. Can you actually make your secondary characters too good? Can they end up stealing the show?
What about you? What books or movies do you remember because the secondary characters were wonderful?