I don't mean that Number 2, Get your mind out of the porcelain throne.
I mean secondary characters. They aren't always at the center of the story, but they are crucial. And, boy, do I have a lot of them.
Over the holidays, Dan and I watched the movie “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938, Frank Capra, dir.). It is about a “man from a family of rich snobs” who “becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family” (IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0030993/). At one point I said to Dan, “They remind me of Maggie’s family!” And he agreed. There were a lot of people in the story, and they were all just a bit crazy.
While the people in Maggie’s orbit may not be quite as madcap as the characters the Capra film, they are quirky in their own way. Maggie is a white, Methodist “mother hen” who takes in strays and believes in the “law of love.” Lydia is her composed and brilliant oldest daughter. Frankie is her outspoken and impulsive youngest daughter. The love of Maggie’s life is an ex-Quaker, free-thinking newspaperman named Eli. Maggie’s best friend is the no-nonsense Emily, who also happens to be black. And Emily’s is married to the good-natured but solid and courageous Nate.
Those are just the central characters. Surrounding them are a virtual conga line of secondary characters.
Why so many?
On explanation might lie in the fact that my undergraduate degree is in Asian Studies. I took Chinese as a language, but also studied Asian histories, cultures, and religions. The cultural area included reading English translations of classic and contemporary Asian literature. One of the things that struck us as students was the vast number of characters in a Chinese novel. There were so many that we needed a cheat sheet to keep track of them.
But, after my second novel, a friend suggested that I include a list of characters at the front of each book, so people would know who they are in case they get lost. So maybe all those Chinese novels had an impact, after all. Way to go, Romance of the Western Chamber! By the way, if memory doesn’t fail me, we wrote a play based on the novel and, by some weird quirk of fate, I ended up as the leading lady. All I remember of the actual performance was an awkward moment on stage when a co-actor forgot his lines and I had no way of prompting him. We stood there like in stomach-knotting silence until one of us got back online. After the performance my good friend Shirley flew up to me exclaiming that she had never laughed so hard in her life.
All of the above probably explains why I am not on Broadway. But it also could have something to do with the number of characters in my books. Or not.
The truth is I have so many characters because they just walk on stage and present themselves. Look, if central characters are going out in public, then other people need to interact with them. Unless of course you’re writing some sort of post-apocalyptic thing and most of the population has been wiped out..
But I love writing secondary characters. They bring with them an energy that can rub up against or inspire the central characters. Take the laundresses in The Enlistment. They are a diverse bunch: tough but kind-hearted Becky; buxom, man-hungry Lily; and smart, assertive Rosa. In the process of the novella, they teach Frankie a few lessons about life in an army camp. Frankie and Rosa become friends, as well.
Human beings are relational and this reality plays into my stories. In Walk by Faith, while Maggie and family are sojourning in Gettysburg, we get to know some of the characters who live in the town. There is Anna Wilson, a black woman who helps self-emancipators and war refugees. There also is focused, medically-minded midwife Adela Edler, a German immigrant who hires Lydia to work with her. Frankie makes friends is Gustav “Gus” Schultz, the son of immigrants and a student at the Gettysburg seminary. Gus shares Frankie's love of adventure and the two of them almost get into a major mess. Finally, there is Capt. Charles Morrison, a courtly Confederate soldier who is stationed in Maggie’s house during the battle. He is not so rigid that he cannot share a difficult conversation about slavery with Emily Johnson.
So, I invite you to come on a little journey with me over the next week or two as we look into some secondary characters and where they connect to history. Please come along!
Until then, have a lovely weekend!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder