Jan 2 2014 3:30pm

Nobody’s Second Fiddle: Great Secondary Characters

If Wishes Were Earls by Elizabeth BoyleToday we're joined by author Elizabeth Boyle, whose If Wishes Were Earls has just been released, featuring a woman who can't forget a kiss she shared with a rakish earl—and the earl in question who needs to forget her if he's going to keep her safe. Elizabeth is here to talk about secondary characters, the glue that makes the hero and heroine stick together. Thanks, Elizabeth!

Great secondary characters make a story well decorated. But if you think authors add them for their window dressing appeal, think again. Secondary characters are some of the hardest working people in fiction. Their jobs, when they are added to a story correctly, are complex and more importantly, intricately tied to the hero and heroine’s development, and ultimately, their fate. They are foils, uncannily familiar, and can prod a character’s conscience to move the story and deepen our engagement with the hero and heroine.

One of the best uses of a great secondary character is that they can be both a mirror and a foil to the main characters. I think one of the best examples of a secondary character who acts as a foil is Diana Barry in the classic and beloved girlhood novel Anne of Green Gables. Diana is the perfect daughter, in contrast to Anne, who is an orphan, therefore no one’s daughter and a child no one would describe as “perfect.” Anne’s flaws are amplified when set against Diana’s good example. Diana also reflects the physical characteristics that Anne longs for—dark hair and a fair complexion, when Anne much to her chagrin and despair is known as “carrot top” because of her red hair. As a foil, Diana Barry reveals more about Anne’s character than she does her own, which makes her a perfect secondary character.

The other part of Diana that makes her an excellent and memorable secondary character is that she is familiar. She is the loyal and beloved best friend, Anne’s bosom bow. In this, we instantly “know” her because we’ve all had that friend who is the sister of our heart. We welcome her into our imagination and the story because in a sense, she needs no introduction. For the author such a “stock” character takes little away from the story but gives the reader a chance to enter it in the company of a friend.

These familiar characters come in all shapes and sizes: the rakish, charming best friend, the no-account brother, the gossipy matron, the busybody aunt. These characters are wonderful additions to any story since it is like having family over for dinner. I, for one, have tons of aunts, a wide collection of great-aunts and had two grandmothers who were larger than life. Is it any wonder I add these familiar characters to my stories? Aunt Essex. Aunt Minty. Aunt Bedelia. They all have their places in my books, and my mother swears straight off our family tree. And most likely, yours as well.

Finally, a great secondary character will act as the hero or heroine’s conscience, that person who prods them toward making the brave choice, the daring decision, the one who adds that bit of advice that tips the balance. In fiction, as in life, sometimes you need someone who has nothing to win or lose add their two cents to something that matters deeply and uniquely. On the opposite side of this, villains are also great secondary characters who show how a situation shouldn’t be handled, acting as a moral compass to the hero or heroine and pointing them in the right direction. Think of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter seres. While not a complete villain, his decisions are usually the direct opposite of what Harry will ultimately decide. In a sense, he is Harry’s moral compass—just go the opposite direction and all will be well.

As you can see, secondary characters can have a duty and role in the story that encompasses more than one of these elements: a foil, that familiar right hand, or a living and breathing manifestation of one’s conscience. They are indispensible to the plot for they keep our heroine on her toes and give her relationships outside the romance that we can intimately relate to (who hasn’t been lectured on good manners by their grandmother?) all the while acting as our guide deeper into the story, enhancing the nuances of the plot and giving us someone to stand beside as we cheer on the happy ending.

Who is your favorite secondary character?

Learn more or order a copy of If Wishes Were Earls by Elizabeth Boyle, out now:

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Elizabeth Boyle's passions include her husband and two sons (or as she calls them, “her heroes in training”). In between the kids's activities, camping and gardening and trying to keep up on her ever-growing knitting pattern collection, she continues to write new and exciting romances. Visit her at

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1 comment
Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
Great post! Some of my favorite characters are secondary characters, or started out that way.

I love when a series builds up secondary characters and makes you fall in love with them before they get their own book. That can be so rewarding.
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