A Guest Blog Post
By Emily Brightwell, author of the Victorian Mystery Series
I’ve had my nose in a book since my parents realized I needed glasses in third grade. I’ve even had moments when it seemed the only person in the world who understood me was a character in a novel – of course that was when I was fourteen, but you get my drift. Next to air, food, water and shelter, books are the best things ever!
When I read, I get so deep into a good story that I practically clone the protagonist; sometimes I’m a hero fighting against impossible odds, or a noir detective with a drinking problem or a quaint English spinster fearlessly tracking a murderer. But sometimes, even when I absolutely love the main character, I find myself fascinated by one of the bit players, you know, a secondary character that the author shoved in to move the plot forward. This doesn’t just happen in books either, much as I enjoy the antics of Sheldon, Penny, Leonard and Raj, the real reason I turn on The Big Bang theory is in hopes that one of their parents will show up on the screen. Who can forget Sheldon’s mother or Penny’s father or even Raj’s parents Skpying from India? These characters were originally put into the show to enhance a particular plot in a specific episode, but there was something about all of them that made viewers love them so much, they’ve made repeat appearances.
The first time it happened to me was in the very first book of the series, The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries. I had absolutely no idea that Luty Belle Crookshank would end up becoming a major character in the series, but that tart tongued little old lady grabbed hold of me and demanded to become part of the Mrs. Jeffries universe. What’s more, she wasn’t the only one who wanted in; Hatchet, Dr. Bosworth, Blimpey Groggins and a whole host of other characters have become such a part of the series that if I leave them out for a book or two, I get complaints from their fans.
I’ve thought long and hard about why this happens, why does someone invented to keep a story line moving suddenly go from bit player to repeat performer? The only answer I can come up with is that writers subconsciously endow some of them with heroic characteristics.
Luty Belle has many flaws; she’s blunt, bossy, slightly paranoid and prone to hiding her Colt .45 pistol inside her fashionable muff. So why do people love her? Because from the first time she was introduced, readers understood that the most important force driving her was a deep commitment to justice.
In other words, I believe secondary characters become important and take on a life of their own when they manifest the very best attributes of the human spirit. It helps to make them slightly odd too…but that’s another story.
Blimpey Groggins, a buyer and seller of information, is another character that readers like; what’s special about him? He’s not necessarily committed to justice. Oh, he likes it well enough, but if the price is right, he’ll sell what he knows to just about anyone; crooks, confidence tricksters, bankers, stockbrokers, insurance investigators and even second story burglars. Blimpey buys and sells information to whoever needs it regardless of class, race, creed, nationality or status. He’s an equal opportunity salesman with several very strong principles – he won’t tolerate murder and won’t sell to anyone who is going to use his information to harm a woman or child. He also treats his employees decently. These characteristics, along with his wry observations about Victorian London, have made him a favorite with my readers.
Hatchet, Dr. Bosworth and a multitude of other characters that pop in and out of the series have now become fan favorites. The only thing they have in common is that all of them have at least one, if not more, characteristics that elevate them from a plot prop to a genuine character. Dr. Bosworth may know a lot about bullet holes and the gun that made them, but readers like him because he is committed to healing the sick. Hatchet is liked because of his relationship and commitment to Luty, his employer. He feels he owes her a great debt because when he was in the depths of misery, she gave him a second chance at life. She’s rich so he can’t repay her with money, so he’s doing what he can to make the world a better place.
Secondary characters aren’t always noble, nice or polite, for the most part, they’re flawed and occasionally, quite annoying, but they have a way of grabbing us and making us remember them. I’d like to say the Mrs. Jeffries universe is now complete and there simply isn’t anymore room for anyone else. But….there is a character in my latest book, Mrs. Jeffries Wins the Prize who I suspect might insist on showing up again. Oh well, there’s always room for one more.