I’m not much of a TV watcher—in truth, I pretty much hate it—but when I wanted to write about secondary characters, that’s where my mind went. In a male-dominated household, I grew up with westerns. Many, many westerns. And I liked them. My husband, who thinks no room is complete without a television in the on position, still watches them and sometimes I do, too.
On Gunsmoke, I like Matt Dillon, but I truly enjoy Festus, Kitty, and Doc. On Have Gun, Will Travel, it’s Hey Boy and Hey Girl who draw my attention. On Rawhide, need I say it?—it’s Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates and Wishbone the cook and Mushy, his softhearted assistant who make me sit down and continue watching. On Wagon Train, I liked Charley Wooster and Flint McCullough and Bill with the gentle voice the best.
Beyond westerns, I truly loved Lucille Ball—she was like a member of the family—but it was Vivian Vance as Ethel that I wanted to meet. On M*A*S*H, being a child of the 60s, I loved the entire cast, but Radar O’Reilly and Colonel Potter held my heart.
Looking at what I read—and, more important, keep to read again—the secondary characters bring me back as much as the main ones do. With many writers—Robyn Carr or Mary Balogh, anyone?—I do a fist-pump and a “Yes!” because I can often pick out the secondary who’s going to be a primary in a book down the road.
I don’t know how often I read Gone With the Wind before I knew how strong Miss Melly and Mammy were or which time it struck me that one reason I reread Muriel Jensen’s A Carol Christmas was that I loved the supporting cast.
In my early romance-writing days, more than one contest judge and an editor or two told me to take care not to make my secondary characters too strong. I didn’t want, they told me, for them to outshine the hero and heroine.
I’m pretty sure I’ve failed at this. What’s nice is that some of my favorite authors have, too. For this I thank them. If I like the book, it goes without saying that I either start out liking or come early to like the main characters. If I don’t have that connection, I’m done after the first couple of chapters. But secondary characters–sister, brothers, best friends, neighbors? They are the salt and pepper. They keep a story from being Just a Show or Just a Book.
Back to the TV shows that I’ve watched so often I could recite the dialogue even with the sound off—if it weren’t for the secondary characters, for Aunt Bea and Rhoda and Gidget’s friend Larue, I don’t think they’d be very interesting much past the first watching. Likewise, when I look at the keepers on my bookshelves, they’re all populated with secondary characters who add the seasoning to keep the pages turning long after the first reading.