The spotlight shines pretty bright when it comes to literary heroines and heroes. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the sexy Alpha Hero everyone wants to have for their own, or if it’s the no-holds-barred kickass heroines/heroes found in Urban Fantasy, those leading men and women have the difficult job of capturing your heart and making you dedicate a lot of your time in reading their stories.
Their lives are so entertaining that it is easy to forget the real world around us. I mean, who wouldn’t rather read about a fairy princess trying to escape certain death by a fairy queen while having a gorgeous prince fall in love with her? Or reading about a vampire warrior fighting against creepy foes who falls in love with a beautiful woman able to make the most hardened and damaged warrior (the vamp, duh!) into a sweetheart?
So many stories to get lost in, so many heroines to worship or heroes to covet. But what makes their stories so compelling? Sometimes it’s what you don’t notice that makes the difference. And that’s where we come to the people who surround the heroes and heroines. The sidekicks and secondary characters who make the heroes and heroines’ stories even more compelling and real.
Let’s look at The Black Dagger Brotherhood series by J.R. Ward. For me, reading the BDB series is falling in love with the understated and perpetually in-the-background romance of Blay and Qhuinn.
As Qhuinn looked at his best friend's handsome face, he felt as if he'd never not known that red hair, those blue eyes, those lips, that jaw. And it was because of their long history that he searched for something to say, something that would get them back to where they had been. All that came to him was . . . I miss you. I miss you so fucking bad it hurts, but I don't know how to find you even though you're right in front of me.
—J.R. Ward's Lover Mine
While I really enjoyed reading John and Xhex’s road to happiness in Lover Mine, it was scenes like the one above from Blay and Qhuinn that broke my heart. (Yes, I am talking about a gay romance, and YES, I do wish they were getting their own book and Happily Ever After, but male/male romance is not really mainstream yet, so we’ll have to just console ourselves with getting their story told in the background of the next few BDB novels).
Another series where I believe the secondary characters make all the difference is Kim Harrison’s UF series, The Hollows. While the main character, Rachel Morgan, is an amazing heroine, her world and stories would not be as entertaining without the people around her like: Jenks (Pixie), Ivy (Vampire), Bis (a teenage gargoyle) and so many more.
Jenks enthusiastically leaned against the counter and opened the box. Bypassing the plastic knife, he broke off about a third of it and took a huge bite. Ivy watched, appalled, and I shrugged. His mouth moving as he hummed, Jenks finished unpacking the sacks. I was half dead, Ivy was whoring herself to keep me safe, but Jenks was okay as long as he had chocolate.
—Kim Harrison's A Fistful of Charms
Rachel’s life is so full of action and drama but Jenks’ shenanigans, Ivy’s intenseness and Bis going from being just another gargoyle to becoming invaluable to Rachel, magically, is what makes this series so awesome. Rachel is great, but she wouldn’t be so great to read if it weren’t for all the people around her.
Sometimes, secondary characters in a series provide necessary comedic relief such as Reader in the Katherine “Kitty” Katt Series by Gini Koch. Reader kills it when he just can’t help but flirt with Katherine, even though he knows her boyfriend is extremely jealous. Kat always flirts back, and makes it clear that if he was straight, they would totally be together; it doesn’t matter if they are just hanging out, or in the middle of an intergalactic battle.
Or a circle of friends and family that becomes the heart of the series, like in the Crimson Moon series by L.A. Banks. Showing the love and compassion Sara has for those people makes for a more sympathetic portrayal of an otherwise tough-as-nails chick like Sara who has no qualms about getting rid of any threat to her life the lives of the people she loves, but that will make sure that she has time spend time with her friends or be there for those that need her, even if the world is exploding around them.
There are some series where the secondary Character simply steals the protagonist’s thunder, as well as the readers’ hearts. Like in the Downside Ghost Series by Stacia Kane, where you might like Chess, the heroine, but you can’t help but fall head-over-heels for her friend and (spoiler?) potential love interest, Terrible. He might be an enforcer for a crime boss, but Terrible has such a low opinion of himself that he has a hard time believing a woman might really like him for him and not because she needs him for something. He can be a jerk—it’s the nature of his business, after all!—but he is so sweet to the people he cares about or who really need him.
That same scenario also holds true in the latest Night Huntress novel by Jeaniene Frost, This Side of The Grave. This is a series where the main hero and heroine have gone through everything but hell (literally?) to finally be together in a stable and loving relationship. But in the latest installment of this series, the character who really shines is Vlad, a vampire who is friends with the heroine, Cat. He has been such a success throughout the series in general that he’ll be getting his own spin-off, with a minimum of two books in the upcoming years.
'Premature inflammation,' He replied. 'Happens sometimes. Very embarrassing, I don’t like to talk about it.'
—Jeaniene Frost's This Side Of The Grave
It is so easy to overlook or discount the secondary players of a book or book series when the spotlight is focused on the protagonists of the story. You can read about an awesome and kickass heroine with a great job and tons of adventures, but sometimes you can’t help but be drawn to her snarky best friend, who helps balance the darkness in the heroine’s life.
Every building or power needs a foundation and that is what secondary characters in a story are; they give the necessary balance to the leading characters’ lives with humor or the necessary drama. I wouldn’t even have gone past a few pages in some stories if it weren’t for the people around them. Sometimes the spotlight is bigger than the star, and that’s where these characters truly shine.
Larissa Benoliel blogs at Larissa's Bookish Life and is a Brazilian-Israeli living in Rio de Janeiro. She loves to read Urban Fantasy, Fantasy, and Paranormal Romance. If she’s not online, she’s reading. Usually it's both.