I love secondary characters. I admit this freely. When I was a kid, everybody else wanted to play the hero, I wanted to play the sidekick. The hero had to carry the burden of the story. The sidekick (or the villain or the comic relief) could and did do anything: Say outrageous things, be cowardly, be bold, be silly. He or she could be a mentor or a stooge.
Today we start a series of interviews of various authors - which I'll publish each Wednesday - about their favorite secondary characters. And we begin with Ellen O'Connell, writer of mystery and western romances.
ELLEN IS GOING to tell us about Jaime Francisco Rodriguez y Candelaria, a character from her western historical romance, Sing My Name. "Roddy" as he's known to his Anglo companions, is a gunman born in Texas just after it became part of the United States.
Camille: What made you create this character?
Ellen: The hero and heroine in Sing My Name meet and fall in love very young. They are then separated for 8 years before meeting again. I wanted to "peek" into each of their lives a few times during that separation so that the reader would know what they went through and how it affected them. The hero, Matt Slade, falls in with a group of gunman. I needed those gunmen to interact with Matt in ways that showed and developed his character. Roddy became one of the two I primarily used to do this.
Camille: Tell me what makes Roddy special to you?
Ellen: When I first conceive of stories, the main characters quickly become clear in my mind, but the secondary characters often remain enabling shadows until I actually write them. That’s how it was with Matt’s gunmen cohorts in Sing My Name. As soon as I began to write him, Roddy developed from a shadow into a man I sympathized with and liked, maybe because under all Roddy’s prickly pride is a sardonic sense of humor. Roddy starts out as an arrogant, angry young man and develops into one still very proud but showing the beginnings of coming to terms with what has happened in his life and what he may want from the future. I ended up wanting a better life for him and daydreaming a bit about what that might look like.
Camille: You said Roddy helped you show and develop Matt's character. How does he do that?
Ellen: Except that both were orphaned young, Roddy is a total contrast with my hero. Roddy was born to a wealthy, aristocratic Mexican family. Matt is the son of poor Texas settlers. Roddy took to the gun at 16, hunting down men who murdered his family. Matt joined the Confederate Army at 16 hoping for 3 square meals a day and decent clothes (the “biggest mistake I ever made,” he says to the heroine). Matt doesn't decide the only way he can earn a living is with a gun until after he gets out of prison as the result of the events in the first part of Sing My Name.
When we first meet Roddy he looks at Matt with disdain. He is all too aware of his own superior background and education. Although he practices no religion, Roddy considers anything not Spanish and Catholic barbaric and has become hardened close to the point of amorality. In the years they ride together, Matt becomes more self-assured and worldly because of his association with Roddy and Beau Taney (the other gunman whose character becomes important). Yet Roddy and Beau are affected in more basic ways by Matt's unflinching refusal to compromise when he believes he’s right, regardless of the consequences. I used Roddy's POV for several scenes and believe the interactions between Matt, Roddy, and Beau seen through Roddy's eyes show Matt's character in a way I couldn't have achieved staying in Matt's head.
Camille: Do you have more planned for Roddy?
Ellen: Yes. Although I have two more standalone romances outlined already, I plan to at some point write a separate romance for Roddy and another for Beau Taney.
Camille: You write both romance and mystery. Some consider secondary characters to be less important to romance fiction, or even a weakness if there is too much emphasis on them. Can you say a little bit about what you see as the role of secondary characters in romance, and how it differs from mystery?
Ellen: As you know, the trend in romance today is toward series where secondary characters in the first novel are the hero or heroine of the next, and next, and next. However, readers still want the main emphasis in a given romance to be on the hero and heroine and the relationship. The role of secondary characters is mainly to approve/disapprove or help/hurt the developing relationship. If the romance is of the drawing room type, that may be all. If, like mine, the romance is also something of an adventure story, secondary characters may have larger roles as supporters, enemies, or villains. Secondary characters provide an opportunity to develop aspects of the hero or heroine's personality, for instance, a cruel parent or needy younger sibling can explain an action of belief of a main character.
For the type of mystery I write, cozy, secondary characters are, in my opinion, more important than in most romances. They are often quirky and appealing and help develop the atmosphere that cozy fans like me enjoy. In a cozy series, a secondary character often develops almost as much as the main character does as the series progresses. Secondary mystery characters don’t usually get their own books the way romance secondaries do, but it happens. Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole books usually feature his friend and partner, Joe Pike, as a secondary character, but Crais has written a few in the series where Joe is the primary and Elvis the secondary. In the same way as in romance, mystery secondaries are used to highlight elements of the main character by their interactions with her. Secondary characters are also important sources of the clues the amateur sleuth needs to solve the mystery. The murderer is a necessary secondary character.
Ellen O'Connell currently has three novels available as ebooks and paperbacks: Rottweiler Rescue, a mystery for dog lovers; Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, a western historical romance, and Sing My Name, a western historical romance.