TBG: For anyone who doesn’t know yet, Heather C is a huge historical fan. A few months ago, she read a book by a newbie author and could not stop singing her praises for it. Now, Heather has been able to cajole this certain author into doing a guest blog for The Blogger Girls.
So, today we have a special treat for everyone because KJ Charles has agreed to be our Honorary Blogger Girl for the day! Yay! Please give her a big welcome and hope you enjoy her post as much as we have!
Also Starring: Secondary Characters in Romance
by KJ Charles
A romance is usually the story of two people in love. But that’s enough about them, let’s talk about the others.
Unless a book is set in an isolated villa / tropical paradise island for two / sex dungeon, there will be other people involved in the main relationship, whether peripherally or close to the centre. (For the sake of clarity, I’m not going to talk about ménage in this post.) Friends, enemies, exes, bosses – all the people that add depth and richness to the world, carry out the plot, and interact with the MCs (main characters).
Good secondary characters have three key functions: to further the plot/story; to show us the MCs in other lights; and to make the book’s world richer and more real or vivid.
Just furthering the plot is not enough. A few of my least favourite stock secondary plot-device characters:
- Basil Exposition. Nailed by the Austin Powers films, he exists only to convey information to the MCs.
- The Meaningless Antagonist of Doom. Exists to be an obstacle, threat or dragon for slaying; has no real motivation of his own.
- Internalised Misogyny Woman. Is always a woman. Exists to say bitchy things about the heroine and make her look good by contrast, or to be slutshamed for finding a hero attractive.
- The Queued MC. “Look at me being attractive and pointedly single, while not actually playing a purpose in the story! Guess who’s getting his own book soon!”
The key word in the above is ‘stock’. Of course information must be conveyed, and there must be antagonists. They just need to be ones that act for their own reasons, not the author’s plot requirements. I love well drawn series characters appearing in books not their own, as long as they’re serving the book they’re in. (There is no good version of Internalised Misogyny Woman.)
Characters don’t have to play gigantic plot roles to be necessary as secondaries, of course. In my first book, The Magpie Lord, the hero Lord Crane has a manservant, Merrick. He isn’t plot-crucial. It would, technically, be possible to tell the story without him. But it wouldn’t be the same book, because their long-lasting, argumentative, deep and foul-mouthed friendship is crucial to Crane’s life and character.
Without a good cast of secondaries (or a damn good reason not to have them), MCs come across as people living in isolation tanks. Alexis Hall memorably described this sort of set-up in m/m as a world of “gay firemen and FBI agents lying in a pile on the living room floor”. Books need the secondary characters, friends or family or antagonists, to bring the MCs to rounded life.
On the other hand, of course, a romance that gives too much page time to the secondaries risks terminal plot-stalling. We may find out a lot about the MCs by sitting through a real-time narration of an enjoyable dinner with all their college friends, but we may also consider finding out what’s on TV.
For perfect examples of handling large numbers of secondary characters in romance, here are two of my favourites, both Georgette Heyer: The Unknown Ajax and Frederica. Mild spoilers follow, so feel free to nip off and read them both now, if you haven’t, and I’ll see you back here.
The Unknown Ajax features an extensive, sprawling, bitterly unhappy family, plus servants, trapped in a huge decaying family seat. Our hero, Hugo, enters, falls in love with his cousin Anthea, and they get engaged. That’s it for the romance plot; there is virtually no conflict and no personal growth for either MC. But the secondary characters’ plots are spectacularly elaborate, with a huge cast and multiple storylines beautifully woven together to hilarious and brilliant effect, culminating in the best-orchestrated ending I have ever seen in a book. Almost every single secondary in the book has a story arc, learning humility or courage, finding their talents or sense of humour. And Hugo is at the heart of it all, making it all happen for Anthea’s sake – which is why the book doesn’t feel unbalanced despite the plot not hinging on the romance at all.
Frederica is almost the opposite of Ajax. A hero who is a rude, selfish bastard comes up against a heroine with a large and loving family. The story is all about Alverstoke’s personal growth, as he learns to care for other people, and Frederica learning to live her own life and let other people have agency for theirs. The rest of the family don’t change at all. But they are beautifully drawn secondaries, doing their own thing (things that continually bring Frederica and Alverstoke together), and each interaction between them and Alverstoke sheds light on his character and very often changes him, which in turn changes his relationship with Frederica. We learn about Alverstoke, and he learns about himself, through his interactions with the secondaries.
So here’s to the supporting cast, turning a romance (whether simple or complex) into a live and engrossing world, and a book into a pleasure.
You can find KJ Charles on Twitter @kj_charles or at her blog kjcharleswriter.wordpress.com.
What’s new from KJ?
A Case of Possession (sequel to The Magpie Lord) comes out on 28 January.
Magic in the blood. Danger in the streets.
Lord Crane has never had a lover quite as elusive as Stephen Day. True, Stephen’s job as justiciar requires secrecy, but the magician’s disappearing act bothers Crane more than it should. When a blackmailer threatens to expose their illicit relationship, Crane knows a smart man would hop the first ship bound for China. But something unexpectedly stops him. His heart.
Stephen has problems of his own. As he investigates a plague of giant rats sweeping London, his sudden increase in power, boosted by his blood-and-sex bond with Crane, is rousing suspicion that he’s turned warlock. With all eyes watching him, the threat of exposure grows. Stephen could lose his friends, his job and his liberty over his relationship with Crane. He’s not sure if he can take that risk much longer. And Crane isn’t sure if he can ask him to.
The rats are closing in, and something has to give…
Contains m/m sex (on desks), blackmail, dark pasts, a domineering earl, a magician on the edge, vampire ghosts (possibly), and the giant rats of Sumatra.