Friday, March 19, 2010

Secondary Characters We Love - Kathleen O'Brien

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?


Irene L. Pynn said...

Let's just be honest with ourselves: when is Johnny Depp not swoon-worthy and therefore everyone's hero by default? ;)

Merry said...

In Sharon and Tom Curtis' The Windflower there's a secondary character, a young man who is fascinating and so deeply scarred by his past, that you just couldn't help wanting to know more about him. That story, to my knowledge, never got written and I know I'm not the only reader who regrets that. But you're so right, Kathleen. Sometimes, a seondary character steals all the thunder, and writers really need to watch for that. I have to say, you're one of the writers who always gives me just enough about a secondary character to make me want more, but not so much that I forget just whose story I'm reading. Thanks for that! Ann

andrea313 said...

Speaking of Johnny Depp... My DH & I are taking in a movie tonight. I want to see Alice in Wonderland, he wants to see Shutter Island. Hmmm. I hope we end up in the same movie theater! :)

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Irene, you're so right. If you don't want that character to commandeer everyone's hearts, don't cast Johnny Depp. Period.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Ann, that's really nice. It is quite a balancing act, though, isn't it? You manage it awfully well yourself. :) Now you've got me dying to read The Windflower. Wonder if it's still available? I read one book by them...Lightning that Lingers, I think it was called. What a beauty! Great hero, and as I recall there was a secondary character who was an owl, and he stole my heart, too!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Andrea, LOLOL. That's why they invented the multi-plex, right? You ride together, park together, even stand in the concession line together. But then...this way Johnny Depp! :)

Emmanuelle said...

One of my favorite secondary character ever is Will from Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series. He probably won't ever get his own book I know. He's quite crazy and wicked and psychotic after all, but I do love him. There wouldn'gt be a good Myron if not for his best friend.

Mary Anne Landers said...

Thank you for the guest blog, Kathleen.

This is just one reader's opinion, but I prefer fiction---novels, movies, TV series, whatever---in which one or more secondary characters threaten to steal the show, and come mighty close to pulling it off.

Why? Because interesting relationships require some degree of complexity. Characters must interact with each other in more than just a one-on-one-fashion. Otherwise it's too simple and repetitious to sustain interest. Well, my interest, anyhow.

Too often we see romance novels in which the focus on the hero and heroine is so tight that for all practical purposes, they're the only characters. They spend virtually the whole narrative together alternately arguing and making love.

Other characters are talked about, but appear rarely if at all. There might be some description, but no real characterization.

I don't want to spoil anyone's fun; I realize there's a market for this sort of romance fiction, a big one. But how about works for those of us who prefer more variety?

Yes, I've heard the old rule that secondary characters and their concerns need not apply because they detract from the romance in the story. Sorry, I don't buy it. If done right, they contribute to the romance in the story. They provide the springboard for the romance, contrasts to the protagonists, or obstacles they must overcome. Or better yet, all of the above.

For an example of what I mean, one that's fairly well known and fresh in my mind from a recent repeat viewing (even if it's 57 years old), consider the film version of "From Here to Eternity". The plot revolves around two rule-breaking romantic relationships: a professional soldier (Burt Lancaster) who's a model military man until he falls for his commander's wife (Deborah Kerr); and a square-peg private who never should have enlisted (Mongomery Clift) and a good-time girl (Donna Reed).

Each couple could have a story on their own. But the overall narrative is much more interesting because of the secondary characters, especially the raffish eccentric played by Frank Sinatra and the sadistic bully played by Ernest Borgnine.

Each character has a role to play in the story, and does so well. Take away even one, and there's less to the story, including the romantic aspect.

Hope this helps. Keep up the good work!

Kathleen O'Brien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen O'Brien said...

Mary Anne, what a wonderful, thought-provoking comment! It could be a blog all its own...have you ever thought about blogging? You have wonderful insights.

I happen to love rich secondary characters, too. I understand that sometimes a reader is looking for a quick, tight fits the emotional and entertainment needs of the moment. And with entertainment I feel that there is no right and wrong. There's only what works for you and what doesn't.

But I do agree that rich, textured secondary characters can really make a book unforgettable. Your example is a great one. I feel the same way about Gone With The Wind. Each character informs the central characters, and enriches the fictional world until you forget it IS fictional!

Love your ideas, Mary Anne. I'm so glad you took the time to mull this one over!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Emmanuelle, very interesting comment about the Harlan Coben books. I've read quite of few of his mysteries and loved them, but haven't ventured into the Myron books yet. You've definitely piqued my interest!

One of my favorite mystery writers, an oldie-goldie, is Rex Stout, who created Nero Wolfe. Have you ever read him? Nero's sidekick, Archie Goodwin, is one of the best characters ever drawn, and I feel about them the way you feel about Myron and Will. There could be no Nero without Archie, and vice versa. Now that's writing!

Thanks so much for coming by and mentioning Coben. I'm definitely going to get a Bolitar book soon!

Pat Cochran said...

Hi, Kathleen,

Just thought I'd share: We recently
saw the new musical Wonderland,with
the book/Jack Murphy, Gregory Boyd, lyrics/Jack Murphy, music/
Frank Wildhorn. You will love the fact that the main character is Alice Cornwinkle, a descendant of Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice. We saw it at the Alley
Theatre here in Houston and it
was on it's way to Seattle when
it left us.

Pat Cochran

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Oh, Pat, that sounds wonderful! Was it great? I am emerald green with envy! Now I'll have to check their schedule and see what's closest to Florida!

Mary Anne Landers said...

Kathleen: Thank you for your response to my comment. Yes, I've got an upcoming guest blog assignment.

During April, which in the US is National Poetry Month, I'll be blogging at Pop Culture Divas about John Keats. He's about the last person one might expect to find as the subject of a pop-culture blog. But that plays into the whole point of my write-up, that he's still relevant nowadays.

I'm looking forward to more of your blogs. And if you need a guest to blog at your site, please let me know.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Ooh, Mary Anne, I love Keats! Did you see Bright Star? Please be sure to let me know when your blog about him is available!

Mary Anne Landers said...

Kathleen: I'll let you know when my guest blog is published. And yes, I saw "Bright Star." And in order to maintain an upbeat tone, I'd better keep my opinion about that movie to myself!

Pat L. said...

Preacher from Robyn Carr's Virgin River - and he did get his own book.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Oh, Mary Anne, I'm sorry you didn't like it. I don't think I was particularly judgmental about it...I was so thrilled that anyone would still make a movie about him! :) I'm sure you probably know too many of the real facts to settle for the fiction.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Pat L., I haven't read that book, but you can bet it's going on my TBR list right now! I just love getting these recommendations from people who really know! Thanks for sharing!

Nancy S. said...

I loved both John Paul and "Big Daddy" Renard from Julie Garwood's Mercy ...John Paul got his own book too - Killjoy.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Nancy, Julie Garwood is wonderful! She's the perfect example of my comment that secondary characters can really make a book sparkle! Thanks for bringing these great examples up!

Pat Cochran said...


I truly hate to pass along this
piece of information on Wonderland.
It opened it's first run in Tampa!
Then it came to Houston. I came to
know about this musical because my
son works for the Alley Theatre.
I'm not sure where it's headed
after Seattle. If I find out any
thing more, I'll pass it on to

Pat Cochran

Linda Henderson said...

I think my favorite secondary characters are from J.D.Robb's In Death series. Eve and Roarke are the main characters but the secondary characters are wonderful. Peabody, McNabb, Morris, Feeney, Sommerset, they are all wonderful characters.

Annie West said...

Hi Kathleen,

Your post caught my eye as 'Nine Coaches Waiting' is a fave of mine, though I haven't read it in years. It's got so much going for it, including that tension as the heroine has to discover if the man she's fallen for is all she'd believed him or a would-be murderer. And the Lady Macbeth allusions are terrific.

Thanks for mentioning this one. You're so right about memorable secondary characters. What would 'Rebecca' be without Mrs Danvers?

Pam S said...

The book that stands out for me is Where the Heart is by Billie Letts in this book the secondary characters help Novalee grow in many ways. The one that really stands out is Sister Thelma Husband, a kindly and eccentric woman who was a stranger to Novalee but took her and her daughter in and made them family.

cheryl c said...

This is why I enjoy reading books in a series. I like the secondary characters so much that I just have to read THEIR story.