Favorite Secondary Characters

on February 19, 2009

We talk a lot about heroes, heroines, and villains. But there’s a character that in many ways and in many stories is just as important as the protagonist and antagonist–and that’s the sidekick. The pal. The mentor. A secondary character who is important to either the protagonist or the story itself–or better yet? Both.

I was thinking about this today when I posted something over at the Romantic Times message board about my character Dr. Hans Vigo. Hans was a throwaway character in my first trilogy, someone my FBI agents could call up for information. No one I had plans to develop, but after talking to him on the phone (through my characters!) I had a picture of him. Late 40s, a bit on the short side, a tad overweight–but still fit. A mentor. A good guy. The go-to guy. My know-it-all-if-I-need-anything-from-Quantico FBI dude. 🙂

But he sort of stuck around.

In FEAR NO EVIL I brought him back, a profiler–but also because he was on the East Coast and I needed someone to interview a potential suspect/witness in New York–someone Quinn Peterson trusted. Hans. No brainer. I met him. Big mistake. I liked him.

So when I was writing KILLING FEAR, I brought him in on the page. It seemed . . . right at the time. And, to be honest, I planned on killing him in the Prison Break Trilogy. I remember writing my agent that he was going to have to die. But dammit, my villain didn’t kill him, and picked another secondary character I also liked. Hans survived. And again, in TEMPTING EVIL, I thought he would die. He didn’t. He grew on me. Surely he would be dead by the end of PLAYING DEAD. But . . . how could I kill a guy who’s been through so many of my books? More than half of them?

In SUDDEN DEATH, Hans takes on a major secondary role. He’s no longer simply a Herald or even a simple mentor–he’s complex, he’s my heroine’s Mentor and my hero’s Threshold Guardian. He’s pivotal to the story and yet also a shapeshifter as his motivations change over the course of the story. And finally–finally!–I learn why he’s not only an FBI agent, but so dedicated and driven and amicable. And the most fun I think I had was role-reversal–in the No Evil series, Dillon Kincaid sought out Hans’s advice; in SUDDEN DEATH, Hans is the one calling Dillon for input. I’ll admit, I loved bringing them both back.

Secondary characters are crucial to the story. I can go on and on about archetypes like the mentor and the shapeshifter and the trickster, but the secondary characters that really stick with me are those loyal to the hero or heroine . . . even when battling their own personal demons.

Some of my favorite secondary characters:

Obi Wan Kenobi . . . need I say more? He is the epitome of a mentor to young Luke, sharing with him what he needs to know, but no more. Why? Because he knows that too much information will send Luke down the wrong path. He’s wise, but he’s still struggling with past failures. (The single best character in the later Star Wars films–the prequels–was Obi Wan. They are worth watching primarily for his character growth and development, and is IMO the best consistency with the original.)

Dr. Henry Jones (Sean Connery) in THE LAST CRUSADE. It’s always a tough call whether I like #3 or #1 in the Indiana Jones movies better. #1 had better villains and love interest; but #3 had a terrific story (the holy grail) stronger character development of Indy. I also love his relationship with his father. Ok, I love Sean Connery. But as a catalyst for Indy’s growth, I found his character a perfect major secondary character.

Mark Wahlberg in THE DEPARTED. Okay, I love, love, love this movie. Wahlberg played the borderline psycho cop perfectly. His potential (and ultimately his final act) was foreshadowed brilliantly, and frankly, I don’t know if just any actor could have pulled this off. I didn’t like him. But I completely understood him and his choices and decisions were so perfectly in character I felt that full circle click that I don’t get in many films anymore. (To digress . . . I think THE DEPARTED was the best cast film of the early 21st century.)

Capt. Renault in CASABLANCA. Not wholly likable, but you can’t hate him. You understand him, even if you wouldn’t do what he does. But at the end, he lives up to his character. He was subtle throughout the movie–he never took center stage–but every scene he was in was a perfect foreshadow for the ending.

Joan Cusack in WORKING GIRL. As Cyn, she was the typical “buddy.” A best friend who was quirky but gave sound advice (often with comedic overtones.) She was the comic relief. “Sometimes I dance around the house in my underwear. That doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.” She’s also the threshold guardian to Tess McGill, but not because she doesn’t want her to succeed–Cyn loves her best friend and everything she says and does is because she cares about her feelings and her future. She was a bit over-the-top, but in a secondary character you can get away with doing and saying things you can’t do or say with your protagonist.

–Tangent. In FATAL SECRETS I have a secondary character, Charlie Cammarata, who is not a nice guy. He was fired from Immigration, he did some awful things to the heroine–but his motivations were not bad. They were misguided and he was wrong and he doesn’t know it, but ultimately, by the end you (I hope!) understand him. However, he can say things that the heroine thinks and believes but because she lives within the law, she will never act on them. It’s one of those deep moral questions: if you could kill someone evil and get away with it, would you? Charlie would not hesitate to say yes; my heroine would waver, but ultimately, say no. But using secondary characters to highlight major moral dilemmas is a common use, and when done well, does make you think. How far would you go?

I could go on and on . . . in television, there are more clear-cut examples. Walt (the buddy) in VERONICA MARS; Det. Tutola (ICE-T) in LAW & ORDER SVU–he usually says what I’m thinking; Norm & Cliff in CHEERS. These characters take the show to the next level; without them, you don’t have the depth (or humor.) In fiction, JD Robb has, hands down, the best secondary characters in any series I’ve read. Delia and McNab anyone? Sommerset? Mavis? Without them, it would just be another police procedural; with them, the books are golden.

The most important thing about secondary characters is that they need to be pushing the protagonist to reach for the brass ring (i.e. a cautionary protagonist may need a more aggressive, though sometimes reckless, partner); or be the mentor, the wise man or woman who the protagonist seeks . . . but at the pivotal time, they are unavailable (dead, kidnapped, gone home); or they are a catalyst. They make things happen while they themselves don’t change. But a positive secondary character will always have the protagonist’s best interests in mind. (SAM — LORD OF THE RINGS. He never lost sight of Frodo’s conflict or quest, he was loyal and steadfast. Without Sam, Frodo would not have survived. But it wasn’t Sam’s story.) They may not do the right thing, but they’ll always do it for the right reason.

So share some of your favorite secondary characters and why. What makes them good for the protagonist? Why are they strong characters?