Whether it’s a beautiful woman to flirt with, a partner who covers your back, a best friend to commiserate with, every hero needs some sort of counterpoint who isn’t an antagonist to help further the story along.
But the tertiary characters are the true source of steam in a good novel. They effortlessly carry the water, give information, help set the scene. They provide clues, background, red herrings. I love building tertiary characters. A name, a description, an action, that’s all you need to have them provide whatever element they’re meant to provide. But it’s the development of these characters without over-development that is a true art.
Look at Moneypenny. How much do we know about her? How many non-dedicated Bond fans know her first name is Jane? Do we have any idea where she lives? What her likes and dislikes are, outside of Bond? Where she went to school? What brand of clothing she wears? What she does with her free time? Whether she’s happy? No, none of that is given to us. But every time she’s in a scene, the sparks fly.
I think a good tertiary character leaves you wanting more of them. They aren’t fully formed, are basically two-dimensional, yet play such an important role in our work.
I admit, in first drafts I have a tendency to throw in people (more on that whole concept of characters are real people next week) without knowing for sure what their role is going to be. I’ve been working on revisions of the third book, and I’ve got two fully blown tertiaries who are integral to the solution of the crime. Jasmine Allons is an Iraqi ex-stripper who is now a massage therapist, the other is Thalia Abbott, a seventeen year old who has quit a secret society of high school porn queens and turned to God.
Now, both these girls were in my head well before they made it to paper. Both are elemental to Taylor solving the case. Chances are neither of them will ever appear again (though Jasmine’s past gives her potential to pop up in later books.) But man, they were fun to write.
I had one in ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS who I thought was fun too — Lurene, the black waitress in a podunk town in Georgia. She and her husband Earl run a diner, and Lurene is all woman. She flirts her way through life with that easy sensuality that comes from being a big woman comfortable in her own skin. Her nurturing in the midst of a bloody crisis center Baldwin’s character. And the scene is just two pages long.
You get the idea. I think those moments outside the lead’s head, away from the usual setting (in my case, the homicide office) lend the story a realistic element. These characters prance across the page, serve their purpose, and disappear. Useful tools. What I love is when an author uses them for more.
Many authors have taken their secondary characters and build stories around them. Perfect example, Robert Crais’ incredibly… provocative secondary, Joe Pike, Elvis Cole’s sidekick, takes center stage in THE WATCHMAN. But tertiary characters don’t often find themselves with major roles later on.
One author I know has done this is John Sandford. He took one of his repeat tertiary characters, Virgil Flowers ("That fucking Flowers") developed him as a fully blown secondary in his latest Lucas Davenport novel, then wrote an entire book with Flowers as the protagonist (DARK OF THE MOON). And it’s completely believable and successful.
The opposite side of the spectrum is WIDE SARGASSO SEA, by Jean Rhys. She takes the hidden Mrs. Rochester from JANE EYRE and gives her an entire back story — explaining how she met Rochester, their marriage and all the reasons why Rochester is ultimately forced to lock her in the attic. Fascinating book, if you haven’t read it.
The Moneypenny’s of the fiction world drive the story, ad comic relief, drop hints and clues, even unwittingly solve cases. They provide a structure for the protagonist to work within, like the leading edge of a storm, so to speak. Don’t discount the role these characters can play.
I thank Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell, the inspiration for this column.
Question, who are the best tertiary characters you’ve come across? Any other examples of books that came about from a character who was tertiary?
Awesome, awesome awesome interview with my darling friend and sometimes sidekick Dave White, author of the recently released WHEN ONE MAN DIES, on Laura Lippman’s site. Check it out, and definitely get yourself a copy of his book. It’s magnificent!