Bit Part Firecrackers
A reader recently asked me, “How do you create your secondary characters?”
This isn’t talked about much—we writers adore rhapsodizing about our fierce/vulnerable/dauntless/altogether fascinating sleuths and sidekicks instead. But cozy mysteries are character-driven stories, and that refers to all of the characters.
Snow White Red-Handed, my newly-released historical cozy mystery, trots out an eclectic cast of secondary characters, from castle servants and a casino owner to a mysterious Russian princess and an ungainly stepsister. And so—in answer to my Gentle Reader’s question—here is my checklist for secondary characters.
1. They are Fleshed Out.
This applies even to secondary characters who have only one speaking line. Why? Here’s something special about a whodunnit-style mystery: since many of the secondary characters are murder suspects, that means that one of them is really a primary character: the villain. Trippy, right? So, every one of the suspects must have enough punch and intrigue not to seem like a random killer when the truth comes out at the end. My rule of thumb is that everyone has a secret even if it’s not THE secret.
2. They Provide Variety.
Secondary characters can create dimension not provided by the main characters. In Snow White Red-Handed, for instance, I explore class and nationality not only through my sleuth Ophelia Flax (American variety hall actress) and her romantic interest (privileged British professor); I also have a family of American upstarts with a fortune made in the railroad and down-at-heel German servants. And I was able to explore varied settings through secondary characters, too. Because of a couple of sinister guards, the protagonists are lured into a horseback chase through the forest, while my bombastic lady naturalist leads the sleuths to a luxurious health sanatorium. What is more, each of these characters is distinctive in appearance, dress, and mode of speech. Mr. Smith, the American millionaire’s private secretary, speaks like this:
“Like California? Haw! The Black Forest is about as much like California as one of them Arabian racehorses is like a Mexico donkey. Oh, that’s a hoot! No, one thing’s certain, and it’s that I’ve got to get myself back to some real wilderness. That durned police-man, Schubert, has forbidden us all to leave until he gets to the bottom of the murders, but I figure that’ll take about as much time as for him to learn to be a ballerina.”
3. They Provide Absurd (Comic?) Relief.
I admit, Snow White Red-Handed isn’t exactly a serious story. Early readers have called it “fun,” and I can more than live with that. Because even though I will never, alas, be as witty as P. G. Wodehouse (secret fantasy of mine), I do want my books to be at least mildly amusing. I find that my secondary characters, behind my back, tiptoe again and again over the threshold into Absurd Territory. Here is one of the descriptions of the lady naturalist and her elderly, consumptive employer, two characters I immensely enjoyed writing:
“Miss Gertie posed like one of those Viking ladies at the opera, all blond braids and magnificent bosom, in an arched doorway at the far end of the dining room. All that was missing was one of those helmets with horns. She gripped the handles of a wicker wheelchair, which was occupied by what appeared to be a heap of black wool with a white wig.”
4. They Provide Historical Dimension.
Here’s something people have been asking a lot about: how I came up with the attitudes of my German fairy tale scholar, Professor Winkler. His snotty belief that fairy tales are merely the product of debased “peasant” minds is derived from an actual historical essay written by James Russell Lowell (a Harvard professor) in 1870. There was no way I could’ve made it up; Lowell’s assertions have that special outlandish-yet-real flavor. (This is why I compulsively read Wikipedia articles: truth is way, way weirder than fiction.)
5. They Enhance Themes and Motifs.
In Snow White Red-Handed, secondary characters embody or enact themes and motifs from the fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” For instance, from the fairy tale I pulled the theme of beauty tied to a mother-daughter relationship. Next, I explored that theme through the avenue of the secondary character Prudence Bright, whose actress-and-courtesan mom taught her to value her looks and feminine wiles above all else. As another example, “Snow White” has that little detail about the Wicked Queen wanting to eat Snow White’s liver (or lungs, or heart, depending on the version), so in Snow White Red-Handed I HAD to go there:
“Luncheon, by the by,” Winkler said to Mr. Coop, “was superb. The sautéed liver! Your cook is a sorceress. Did you bring her from America?”
Truthfully, there are lots of writing days when my secondary characters are vastly more amusing to play with than my main characters. On those days I feel like I should, like a theater manager, pull the exuberant bit part actor offstage with a cane. Yet sometimes I indulge, and let them bask in the limelight a moment or two longer.
Maia Chance writes historical mystery novels that are rife with absurd predicaments and romantic adventure. She is the author of the Fairy Tale Fatal and The Discreet Retrieval Agency series, and her first mystery, Snow White Red-Handed, is available now from Berkley Prime Crime.
Maia is a candidate for a Ph.D. in English at the University of Washington. This means that the exploits of Fairy Tale Fatal’s heroine, variety hall actress Ophelia Flax, were dreamt up while Maia was purportedly researching 19th-century American literature and fairy tale criticism. The Discreet Retrieval Agency series was born of Maia’s fascination with vintage shoes, automobiles, and cocktails combined with an adoration of P. G. Wodehouse and chocolate.
Upcoming titles include Come Hell or Highball (St. Martin’s Press, 2015) and Cinderella Six Feet Under (Berkley Prime Crime, 2015). Maia lives in Seattle, where she shakes a killer martini, grows a mean radish, and bakes mocha bundts to die for.