writing tips

The greatest secondary characters in fiction – and when they aren’t really secondary

round robin, helena fairfax

It’s another month, and time for a Round Robin, and this month author Rhobin Courtwright has given us another excellent topic to mull over: Secondary characters have many functions in stories. Have you ever had a secondary character surprise you in some way? How? Who are your favourite secondary characters – in your own work and in other fiction?

Secondary characters are never really “minor characters” in a good story. They are there for a reason.

  • They provide a foil for the main characters, reflecting the hero and heroine’s personality back to the reader so it provides us with another dimension.
  • They’re often necessary for the plot – if a secondary character has been kidnapped, say, it provides a reason for the hero to act as he does.
  • When used well, secondary characters deepen the theme of a novel. If the theme is loss, for example, then if the secondary characters suffer some sort of loss, this can add depth to the hero/heroine’s own troubles.

I find it great fun writing secondary characters, and I try to have all my secondary characters servehelena fairfax, heartwarming romance, feel-good romance some purpose in my stories. In The Antique Love, for example, Tehmeena is the heroine’s assistant in an antique shop in London. The heroine, Penny, is a romantic and a dreamer, and Tehmeena is the perfect foil for her as she is pragmatic and down-to-earth. The two girls have a lot of affection for one another – and if they like each other, this helps the reader to like them, too.

As I mentioned above, secondary characters can be used to deepen the theme of the novel, and this is what I tried to do in A Way from Heart to Heart. The heroine, Kate, has lost her husband and through the course of the novel several other secondary characters leave her one after another, so that she ends up with a terror of losing a loved one again – and she fails to trust the hero.

In answer to the question, “Do my own secondary characters surprise me?” I’d have to say, to be honest,  not often – I try to have their role and purpose pretty much mapped out, and I try not to let them overshadow the main characters. The one time I was surprised, though, was in my latest release, The Scottish Diamond. There is a secondary character in this novella who completely took me by surprise while I was writing one particular scene. It was brilliant when that happened – and I do hope the reader is equally surprised!

Here are some of my favourite secondary characters in fiction:

helena fairfax, gone with the windMelanieWilkes in Gone With the Wind. There’s a scene where a deserting soldier comes to Tara, and when Melanie drags herself out of her sick bed and comes to Scarlett’s aid clutching a sabre it’s a magnificent surprise for both Scarlett and the reader.

Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books.  Hermione is hard-working, where Harry Potter relies on flair. She’s also a Muggle, which means she has to work twice as hard to be accepted in some circles of the wizarding world. I must admit it surprised me that Harry and Hermione didn’t end up together at the end of the series.

Smike, in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. Smike is one of my favourite secondary characters ever. He’s a typical Dickensian character – a poor boy who is bullied by his wealthier “betters,” but he’s good and affectionate and his story is really touching. (And, since this is Dickens, Smike’s story involves a lot of surprises!)

Long John Silver in Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This is one of the best baddies ever, and he absolutely makes the book the genius story it is. I remember being terrified by Long John Silver when I read this book as a child. He’s a surprising mixture of being quite nice sometimes – and ruthless at others.

Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Oh, I love Jane so much! She’s much quieter and more reserved than Lizzie, and temporarily loses Bingley because of it. Who wouldn’t love Jane as much as Lizzie does? She never does anything surprising – she’s just constant and affectionate.

Rupert of Hentzau in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Another brilliant bad guy, played by James Mason in the excellent film verision. Rupert of Hentzau is handsome and dashing, and such a great secondary character that Hope later gave him his own story.

helena fairfax, wide sargasso sea

Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre. I thought I was the only person who felt really sorry for Mr Rochester’s mad wife, until I read Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. In this novel, Bertha Rochester gets to tell her own story, and this book stayed with me for a long time.

Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables. The first time I read this book as a child Gilbert surprisedhelena fairfax, anne of green gables me by continuing to adore Anne even though she constantly rejects him and is too proud to accept his friendship. He’s become one of my all-time favourite heroes, and another brilliant secondary character.

Thanks to Robin Courtright for providing us with another great topic. I’m intrigued to find out what the other authors have to say on this subject, and how they create their own secondary characters. If you’d check out their posts, you can find them here:

Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Connie Vines http://connievines.blogspot.com/
Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Hollie Glover http://www.hollieglover.co.uk
Dr. Bob Rich http://wp.me/p3Xihq-CZ
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com/

Victoria Chatham http://victoriachatham.blogspot.ca/

Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/

* * *

If you’re a writer, are you ever surprised by the secondary characters you create? And if you’re a reader, who are your favourite secondary characters ever?

If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!


32 thoughts on “The greatest secondary characters in fiction – and when they aren’t really secondary

  1. As a reader, I love the way the story of Kitty and Levin unfolds in Anna Karenina.
    As a writer it’s a challenge to get the balance right. I usually have too many secondary characters and have to cull!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kathy, I love both those characters! I first read Anna Karenina when I was quite young, and I totally felt for Kitty.
      It’s terrible when you have to cull your secondary characters, or restrain them so they don’t start taking over. I sympathise! Still, there’s always room for them in that next book…!
      Thanks so much for dropping in!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Amanda, i love that about the “thirdly” characters! Matthew and Marilla were brilliant. I so wanted to live with them when I was a child. I’m glad someone else shares my devotion to Gilbert – thanks for your great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always loved Gilbert, too. Mary was always the one I identified with in the “Little House” books. My favorite is probably Edward Ferrars from Sense & Sensibility. Out of all the Jane Austen heroes, he was the one for me.


    1. I loved Mary, too, Kimberly. I read all those Little House books avidly. I still have a couple of them from my childhood. And Edward Ferrars is such a perfect gentleman. I can see why anyone would love him the most. Thanks so much for your great comment!


  3. Helena, you brought up a lot of great “side” characters! I remember having a tiny crush on Gilbert Blythe when I was very small! We had all of the films on VHS and would go through times where we’d watch Anne grow up, watching all of them over the course of a few days. I loved that Anne was smart and feisty and imaginative, but also though Gilbert was very nice. Long John Silver is also amazing; a man of many faces. A current secondary character I’m quite fascinated by is Jaqen H’ghar from the Game of Thrones book series. He’s in it very briefly (at least as far as book 5 where I am), but is this mysterious/helpful assassin/criminal person who can change his facial appearance with magic…or something. He’s an enticing character and I hope he shows up again!


    1. I haven’t read any of the Game of Thrones books, Rachael. I’ve watched the TV series, and love it. What a fantastic world. Martin has an amazing imagination. One day I plan to sit down and read all his books back to back.
      Thanks very much for dropping in. I enjoyed your post!


  4. Thank you, Helena, for so many examples of secondary characters. I immediately thought of my favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout’s little bro, Jem, kind of a tag-along, but necessary to show off Scout’s temperament. And Boo Radley who I thought would not be so important plays a big part in the novel. I enjoy these rounds.


  5. Thank you, Helena, for so many examples of secondary characters. I immediately thought of my favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird. Boo Radley who I thought would not be so important plays a big part in the novel. I enjoy these rounds.


    1. I think WordPress has been playing up a bit today, JQ. That’s so true about Jem. I hadn’t thought about that before, but he does bring out Scout’s personality. Interesting, as he isn’t a character that has stuck in my mind, but now you mention it, I can see the book would be much less without him.
      I enjoy these Round Robins, too. Robin always gives us such thought-provoking topics. Thanks very much for dropping in!


  6. You’ve shown us some terrific secondary characters and you are so right on that our secondary characters tell us things about our main characters that we might never learn otherwise.


    1. Hi Skye, yes, I love it when a secondary character reveals something about the main character we wouldn’t otherwise have learned. Thanks so much for dropping in. I enjoyed your post!


  7. I’m interested in your saying that you aren’t surprised often by your secondary characters. But then it happened. That’s part of what I enjoy so much about being a writer. I love it when a character I think I created just for a specific purpose, becomes so interesting that I have to write another book featuring that person.


    1. Hi Fiona, yes, I thought I had that character all sorted out, and then literally in the middle of a scene he did something completely different to what I’d planned, and made himself know. It was really great when it happened. I understand why you’ve gone on to write another book featuring a secondary character.
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!


  8. Great post, Helena! I love secondary characters. One of my favourites is Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. But oh, that might be because Col.Brandon (Alan Rickman) steals her heart …

    I find that my secondary characters do surprise me; perhaps partly because I plan very little before I write. I think art mirrors life in this, because as ‘real’ people, we may act in a seemingly unexpected way if the need arises; yet our behaviour is still somehow “in character”, and the product of our beliefs and experiences.

    I found your post via the #TalkoftheTown linkup. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Joanna, thanks so much for dropping in. That’s so true about real people acting in an unexpected way sometimes, and our characters reflecting this. I hadn’t thought of it in this way. It’s good to surprise the reader sometimes – as well as ourselves!
    So glad you found this post through #Talkofthetown. It’s been great being part of Shaz’s linkup.
    Thanks for your great comment!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.