Think about the books on your keeper shelf. Chances are the thing that made the books you love so memorable for you was the characters. A strong plot and good pacing keeps the pages turning and an exotic setting is a nice embellishment, but the characters have to feel real and have to engage the reader.
After my first Silhouette Intimate Moments, To Love Honor And Defend, was published, I held my breath waiting for the reviews. I'd always believed that my strengths as a writer were in pacing, dialogue, and strong hooks. Those were the areas where I scored well in contests as an unpublished writer. So imagine my surprise when unsolicited reviews at Amazon.com included the following snippets:
"The people in this book could be your neighbors, friends, or co-workers. … It was a wonderful bonus to discover that I also cared what happened to the other people in and around Cal's life.”
“The previous review explains a lot of why I also loved this book. I think the final thing that sealed this book as a keeper is the way the author handles the motivations and personality of secondary characters. There are NO cardboard characters here. No scapegoating, NO sugar coating.”
“… As a bonus, the character of Cal's daughter, Ally, is heartwarming and realistic. I even liked the cat.”
I admit, I was blown away. All three of the reviews posted to Amazon mentioned my secondary characters. Now, other than my villains, I'd never really stopped to think about how I created these secondary characters or the role they served, but the readers’ response to my secondary characters really let me know how important secondary characters can be in a story.
Your hero must be someone the reader can fall in love with, your heroine needs to be someone the reader will root for, or laugh with, or cry with. We want to identify with the characters of a story and see their journey to love, to fulfillment but also their growth along the way. Strong, well-motivated, well-rounded characters who grow and change and sacrifice and tug our emotions are the stuff of keeper-shelf books.
But, with rare exception, great memorable characters don't get to their HEA alone. The hero and heroine's journey is populated with people who serve various roles in helping (or hindering) the lead characters as they work toward their goals and search for true love.
Chances are the author of those keepers on your shelf also created secondary characters who were unique, strong and memorable and who helped round out the story in a way that was so flawless that you didn't even realize what she was doing unless you stopped to analyze the story (as we writers have a tendency to do).
Think about the tremendous response Suzanne Brockmann got regarding Sam and Alyssa several books before they ever had their story told. The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars) wasn't a romance but who could forget Yoda as Luke's memorable mentor? Think about how Melanie Wilkes's kind and selfless character served to highlight by contrast Scarlett's scheming. Or Mamie with her red petticoat.
Do you remember Wolf McKensie's son Joe in McKensie's Mountain by Linda Howard. Readers loved him and wanted to see his story.
Does Grandma Mazur in the Stephanie Plum series make you laugh the way she does me? Her role is comic relief.
Readers of Winnie Griggs' historicals have come to expect heartwarming children and quirky or colorful old ladies to mentor the heroine.
Secondary characters can serve many roles to enhance and flesh out your novel, and in October, I’ll be teaching “Secondary Characters: The Good, the Bad and the Quirky” with FF&P’s online classes. I’ll show how the secondary characters have populated a couple of popular movies and novels and outline how to use secondary characters to strengthen your writing as well. Join us, won’t you?
Secondary Characters: The Good, The Bad and The Quirky, presented by Beth Cornelison, runs from October 3, 2011 through October 24, 2011
Rita finalist Beth Cornelison received her bachelor's degree in Public Relations from the University of Georgia. After working in public relations for about a year, she moved with her husband to Louisiana, where she decided to pursue her love of writing fiction.
Since that time, she has won numerous honors for her work including the coveted Golden Heart for unpublished authors awarded by Romance Writers of America. She made her first sale to Silhouette Intimate Moments in June 2004 and has gone on to publish many more books with Silhouette. She has also published with Five Star Expressions, Samhain Publishing, and Sourcebooks.
Beth has presented workshops across the country to numerous chapter meetings, conferences, online classes and book clubs. Beth Cornelison lives in Louisiana with her husband, one son and a fluctuating number of cats who think they are people.