The Last Word
And the Oscar goes to...
Of all the people I’ve created in five going on six novels, Ruby Heartwood is my favorite secondary character. Given the fact she lives now in two novels, it seems a little mean-spirited to refer to her as secondary, meaning not the protagonist, but a vehicle, a prop. Ruby is a semi-retired fortune-teller, a formerly peripatetic practitioner of the psychic arts kept on the move by fear and habit until she comes to light in fictional Moose River Junction. Her daughter Sabine, in classic filial rejection, has chosen to become rooted in this out of the way small Berkshire town. Ruby likes to make vague proclamations that trouble those to whom she makes them. Which makes her an agent of change. When the main character is stuck, Ruby comes out with a profundity to get her unstuck. This is one of the several uses of well-written secondary characters, to gets things moving or to change the direction the protagonist is heading. The job of a secondary character is to make the protagonist grow, change, or come to terms. It can be a cheating husband, a sick child, a rich uncle, a careless friend. I think of secondary characters as more closely associated with the main character than simply a one-chapter appearance, even if "off-camera” a good deal of the time. Think Miss Havesham in Great Expectations, who certainly has an effect on young Pip despite a brief appearance.
Without secondary characters, there is no foil against which the main character, a/k/a the hero, can work. Even stories about solitary people have other characters whose function it is to get that solitary guy either thinking or acting. Sometimes it’s in the form of back-story, why the hero is how he is, who had an influence on him. In Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, a woman left completely alone at the bottom of the world is still supported by the cast of secondary characters as she struggles from one Antarctic base to another. In this imaginative book the secondary characters depend on the protagonist to survive. The novelist borrows a Native American tradition that no one is dead until the last person who remembers you is dead. The blind musician exists in this limbo of the dead solely because Laura Byrd has a fleeting memory of him. Even Robinson Crusoe had to have a secondary character in order to tell the story. A main character has to have someone to talk to, or at least think about.
Some novels have more than one main character, particularly those that have multiple points of view. A secondary character can tie those POVs together by being the one common denominator among them. A secondary character can be the go-between or message giver that pushes the story along. He can be the catalyst for tragedy when he withholds information or misconstrues the truth.
A secondary character can even be the narrator, such as Ishmael in Moby Dick or Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. The function is that of storyteller, but the story isn’t about him. It’s sieved through the personality and experience of the narrator, but the story places him on the outside. He is not necessarily an agent of change in the story — his purpose is to tell it.
For a writer, it is as important to fully develop a secondary character as it is the primary; the secondary character must be just as alive to the reader as the hero. A thinly drawn or cardboard cutout of a character will not work. At the same time there are certainly minor characters, the guests at a party or the gas station attendant, bit players who simply people the scene without much impact. Secondary characters must have a decisive role to play, and a voice in the story. Some secondary characters are as memorable as the main character, or more so. Sometimes the line dividing main from secondary is hard to determine. In Wallace Stegner’s masterwork, Big Rock Candy Mountain, the main character is Bo Mason. His story is told through the eyes of the long-suffering family he drags from north to south, Canada to Montana, Wyoming to Nevada, through 30 years of just missing the get-rich-quick schemes to which Bo is addicted. It could be debated whether or not his wife, Elsa, is also a main character as she begins the tale, but she is truly a secondary character in that Bo’s mania and its effect on her life and that of their sons is filtered directly through the lens of her love for Bo. He is the hub, the driver, and she is incapable of separating herself from him. Like a good secondary character, Elsa serves as something for Bo to react against, or toward. He believes that his actions —bootlegging, gambling, disappearing — are for the best, that he’s doing it for her and for the family. What he can’t see is the effect of his choices on his family. Their sons take up the narrative from time to time, giving the reader the full scope of Bo as his story moves from young father to rejected old man. Each of the characters, with changing POV and even changing tenses, is featured in the novel because his or her part in it is integral to the story of Bo. The thing they all have in common is the effect this damaged man has on them. What they have individually is how they see him, how they deal with what he does. Their separate viewpoints all contrive to give us a complete Bo Mason. This is also what keeps them in the ‘secondary’ role. Even though they are as completely drawn as the protagonist, it really isn’t their story, it’s Bo’s Quixotic journey through life.
If minor characters can be analogized as bit players, secondary characters certainly equate to the supporting roles in movies. The Oscars for Best Supporting Actor in novels surely must include Tom Sawyer’s main man, Huckleberry Finn, who then went on to star in his own novel. Maybe someday, in some novel I have yet to imagine, Ruby Heartwood will finally take center stage.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.