Article of the Month




c. 2002 by Alicia Rasley


    Secondary Characters Who Help Too Much

    Outtake from a synopsis:
    .... As always, Julie turns to her mentor Nancy for advice.  Nancy shows her how to hack into the DA’s computer network, and suggests that when she completes her mission, she enroll in computer training.  In the meantime, Rome’s matchmaking father takes him aside and explains why Julie disappeared, drives him to the hiding place and insists that he go tell her his feelings.  When Rome gets tongue-tied, Dad sighs and writes out a speech for him on an index card and shoves him up the steps to Julie’s door.  Julie refuses to emerge from her room, so Rome hands the index card to Nancy, and waits.  Finally Julie, led by Nancy, comes out. When she sees Rome, she flings herself into his arms, and cries, "Nancy explained all about your sister! I’m sorry I didn’t trust you!"  And then, under the benevolent gaze of Nancy and Dad, they kiss.
    But the wedding has to wait.  First Rome and Julie must remove the hard copy of the criminal record from the DA’s office.  Unfortunately, as they are speeding to City Hall, the malevolent Cretchley intercepts them and forces their car off the road into a ditch. But Nancy and Dad have been following in Dad’s car, and manage to call the police to come to the rescue.  While Rome and Julie must go to the emergency room for tests, Nancy and Dad break into the DA’s office and retrieve the hard copy.  Rome and Julie find themselves holding hands on adjacent gurneys, and vow to stay side-by-side for life.

    Okay, who’s the hero?  Who’s the heroine?

    If you said "Nancy and Dad", you’d be wrong... but you’d be right.  Nancy, the meddling mentor, and Dad, the meddling matchmaker, are by far the most effective characters in this plot.  They also, I might argue, have the more intriguing relationship, and the more entertaining future.  Can’t you just see them opening up an Internet dating service together?

    Rome and Julie, on the other hand, probably won’t be able to check out of the hospital without help.  They have failed at the essential task of protagonists: being the prime movers of the plot.  But this is actually the author’s failure, for supplying too much help from secondary characters.  As Barbara Keiler, who writes for Harlequin and Mira as Judith Arnold (Love in Bloom’s), comments, "I try to avoid using buttinskis and matchmakers because they seem kind of ‘deus ex machina’ to me -- an unseen hand manipulating the course of the story, rather than the protagonists taking control of their own story."

    Mentors, meddlers, matchmakers– the menace of these secondary characters is that they can take over the story, guiding the main characters with their helpful advice, their sage counsel, and their timely interference.  It’s a short-term fix but a long-term disaster– because protagonists who don’t work hard enough, who don’t show enough initiatives, aren’t heroic.  If they get too much help, they aren’t challenged enough to change and grow, and they don’t earn love or reader respect.

    That’s not to say we should do without buttinskis altogether.  Unless the main characters live on a desert island, they will have friends and families who, just like real life friends and families, offer advice, aid, and blind dates. We just need to keep them in their place.  They can supply information, inspiration, interference, as long as their actions aren’t determinative at most stages of the story– as long as the protagonists remain the prime movers of the plot.

    Christie Ridgway (Then Comes Marriage, Avon) agrees there’s a place for secondary characters, but she limits their role. "My secondary characters often help illuminate the hero or heroine’s character, for example, the sister who makes the remark about the heroine, ‘You don't like cops because of those 14 speeding tickets you got last  year.’ But I tend to not have them comment on what the hero or heroine should do."

    Jo Beverley (Hazard, Signet) likes to use secondary characters as sounding boards for the protagonists: "A sounding board helps avoid introspection. The sounding board character can also signal reactions (Hero: I'm thinking of moving to Guatemala. Sounding Board: Are you crazy?) If the sounding board character is ‘normal’ for this world, then the reader knows the speaker is contemplating something way out there."  
    Here are some other ways to make meddlers meaningful while keeping them in their place:

¤"Protagonist" comes from the Greek for "prime actor."
Your central characters should the ones who cause most of the action, make most of the decisions, and do most of the growing in the stories.  An active protagonist might ask for advice, demand aid, blackmail someone to get his cooperation– but passive acceptance of being pushed and pulled by A Mentor Man or a Wise Woman? I don’t think so. A hero relying too much on a meddler’s aid would be like taking the elevator and thinking he’s getting the same calorie-burn as from running up the stairs.

    So keep the protagonist’s journey central as you plot.  This psychological journey requires many steps from embarkation to destination, and no one else can make those steps.

    I like to chart the steps in the journey, for example:
distrust—>alienation ---->forced cooperation -----> revelation ----->voluntary cooperation ---->suspicion of betrayal ----->choice to trust.

    The meddler might be helpful at that third step, to force the hero and heroine to cooperate in some mission, but intervention after that could halt the growth.  For example, let’s say near the end of the book Julie does something that triggers the hero Rome’s suspicions.  He has the choice to give into his suspicions or take a gamble and trust her. But what if Dad steps in with his usual sage judgment.  "Trust her," he says. "I have proof she’s telling the truth."

    What’s wrong with that? Well, if Dad provides proof, Rome’s not learning to trust Julie.  Anyone can "trust" when there’s proof.  He needs to gamble, to put aside his fear of betrayal and trust his own understanding of who she is– and for that to happen, Dad has to butt out.

    So whenever you’re tempted to bring on a meddler to do the plot work, consider what your protagonist needs – and it’s not an assistant protagonist.

¤ Give buttinskis their own agendas. 
I’m sure there are altruists out there, lending a hand just for the sheer joy of helping. But these saintly creatures seem implausible in fiction, especially next to the protagonists with their clearly defined goals and powerful motivations. 
    It’s much more interesting to imagine meddlers and mentors as real people, with their own selfish reasons for wanting the protagonist to act. That way, the meddling can be a source of conflict as much as aid, and perhaps even create an ironic subplot to support the protagonist’s journey.

    St. Martin’s Press author Jenny Crusie (Faking It) says, "Secondary characters can actually be extremely useful as ficelle characters (that's from Henry James): characters who ask the right questions because they need the knowledge for themselves, but in asking give the protagonist a reason to explain something the reader wants (to know), too." The key here, however, is that the secondary character has her own reason to ask the question– she’s not just there as a prod to the heroine’s thought process.  Crusie adds, "Meddlers in my books are control freaks who are interfering in other people's lives, so I'm not kind to them."

    To take a classic example, Friar Lawrence helps Romeo connect with Juliet not so much because he wants them to be happy, but because he sentimentally believes that the romance might bring an end to their families’ feud.  In fact, he actually succeeds at his goal, though at great cost– the last moment of the play has Lord Montague shaking hands with Lord Capulet over the bodies of their star-crossed children. 

    You can also deepen the mentor’s character by creating a conflict between mentoring and his private agenda.  FiveStar author Cathy McDavid (Real Men Sell Bras) mentions the Salingeresque figure played by Sean Connery in the film Finding Forrester: "He mentors the young high school student with his writing. Problems arise because he makes the boy promise never to reveal their relationship."  Later Forrester finds himself forced to choose between his own cherished solitude and the reputation of his protegé.  In fact, this helps the young writer Jamal, who learns the complications of human nature when he chooses to trust his mentor and forgive his weakness.
¤Make mentors a pain in the neck.
If mentors are annoying, obscure, or incompetent, the protagonist will have to suffer for whatever help she gets from them. Suffering is salubrious, remember. In fiction, as well as in life, nothing good should come easy, especially for those who need to be challenged to grow and change.

    Forrester is an example of the annoying mentor, and his very curmudgeonliness encourages the protagonist to become more active.  Budding novelist Jamal realizes he can  learn a lot from this Pulitzer-Prize winner– but unlike so many mentors, Forrester doesn’t make it easy.  Jamal has to prove himself worthy of the apprenticeship, in the process overcoming his inner-city insularity and realizing he’s tough enough to enter the wider world. After all, if he can impress the hypercritical Forrester, he can impress anyone.  So Forrester’s mentorship isn’t an aid so much as an ordeal– a challenge Jamal must surmount in order to earn greater skills and confidence.  (He also manages to coax Forrester out of a decades-long depression, by providing his own challenge to the old man.)

    Stephen King often uses mentors to help guide his characters on their quests– but the mentors aren’t always very helpful.  In Insomnia, Ralph’s mentor is a senile old man who insists on giving clues in the form of poetry quotations and brings more frustration than enlightenment: "It occurred to Ralph that this was his chance to grab Dorrance and maybe get some answers out of him... except that Ralph would likely end up more confused than ever."  Dorrance’s advice is so loony that Ralph comes to question his own sanity in attempting to find its meaning.  Paradoxically, that teaches him to let go of his need for rationality and order, and trust his own heightened senses and new-found telepathy. 

    Incompetent mentors can provide comedy, but also force the protagonist to cut the umbilical cord and venture forth alone. 

    For example, let’s say Julie in our synopsis above turns to Nancy for romantic advice.  After all, Nancy knows all about computers, so naturally she’ll be an expert on romance– that’s what Nancy thinks, anyway. But think how much fun it could be if Nancy’s advice leads to disaster.  Maybe she suggests that Julie make Rome jealous by pretending to still be involved with her ex-boyfriend, and ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend hears about this, and comes calling with a couple of her big sisters.  Then Julie might realize that she can do no worse on her own.

¤Make meddling interactive.
    Interactivity creates action, conflict, and creativity. It’s more work for the characters, and so more entertaining for the reader.

    Jenny Crusie says, "The (typical) advice scene is just one character lecturing another, no give and take, no dialogue.  That kind of scene is static -- I keep thinking of Polonius who gave really good advice that nobody listened to because he kept lecturing -- whereas the scene where people discuss and argue and work together to figure something out is dynamic."

    Consider ways to energize an "advice" scene by making it interactive. For example, if Rome desperately needs advice on a birthday gift for Julie, lock All-Wise Dad in the attic and let Rome’s macho best friend Mark arrive with a six-pack and a video game.  You know the sort of gifts Mark would suggest– they’re all featured in last month’s catalog from Frederick’s of Hollywood. 
    Mark: "How about one of those crotchless panties?"
    Rome: "We haven’t even slept together!"
    Mark: "Definitely crotchless panties then! You know, it’s like a hint that you want to get closer."
    Rome: "I’m not going to insult her like that.  She’s – not the crotchless panties type.  She’s... you know. Sort of classy."
    Mark: "Classy, huh? I had a chick like that once.  She liked poetry, so I got her a book of dirty limericks."

    A few go-rounds like this, and Mark will be dismissed as a gift consultant. More important, however, his cluelessness will have sparked Rome to think about who Julie is and paradoxically lead to the discovery of the perfect gift.

¤Too many matchmakers spoil the match. 
    The matchmaker is a traditional romantic device because it affirms the community’s intense interest in getting young people together.  After all, without successful romances, the village or the culture or the species will die out. But just as traditional is the young people’s defiance of such manipulation.  An example is in Fiddler on the Roof, where Yente the matchmaker matches the meek girl Tzeitel with a brutish butcher. Tzeitel proves her inner courage by insisting on a marriage with the poor tailor she loves.

    Why is resistance of matchmaking so common in fiction?  It’s because matchmakers so often make their decisions rationally, valuing finances and social success more highly than passion.  So Yente the matchmaker matches the poor girl with the rich butcher, and the social-climbing Lady Capulet matches Juliet up with the prince’s kinsman Paris.  But romance is about love, not about economic and social union, so it falls on the young people to affirm the primacy of passion over pragmatism, and heart over head.

    So traditional and current romantic comedies often use matchmaking failures as a way to get the "wrong" (that is, the right) couples together.  Signet author Allison Lane exploits the comic potential of this in a book titled Too Many Matchmakers: "The efforts of a dozen people resulted in everyone winding up betrothed to the wrong people (three couples).  The hero and heroine had to work hard to straighten out the mess."

    That’s not to say every matchmaker has to choose the wrong mate every time.  After all, sometimes it does take a village to get a couple stubborn young people together, and readers have shown over and over again that they like a good matchmaker plot as a staple of romantic comedy.

     The danger is that with everyone knows how right Rome and Julie are for each other from the very beginning, there will be little romantic growth– no real challenge for them to earn this love. No conflict, that is.  But the course of love has to be more than just gradually accepting the reality that is blindingly obvious to everyone else in the book.

    So consider making the matchmaker right, but for the wrong reasons.  The matchmaking grandmother in the film Gigi, for example, wants young Gigi to entrance the rich young Gaston. Her motive isn’t to make Gigi happy so much as to carry on the family tradition of supplying adept and accomplished courtesans to the aristocracy. Gigi and Gaston overcome this mercenary plan and find real love together– but they do it despite, not because of, the elderly matchmaker.

    In fact, the matchmaking machinations can become a conflict of sorts.  Bridget Jones is predisposed not to like Mark Darcy for the very good reason that she can’t believe her controlling, materialistic mother and her friends could conspire to fix her up with a plausible man. "Being set up with a man against your will is one level of humiliation," Bridget thinks, "but being literally dragged into it by Una Alconbury while caring for an acidic hangover, watched by an entire roomful of friends of your parents, is on another plane altogether."  It takes her time to see past the maternal manipulations to the real Mark, and that only happens when Mark reveals the man behind the mother-pleasing externals of professional success and financial security. 

    Fiction is all about change, and change doesn’t happen without conflict.  Protagonists change in response to conflict, and grow in order to overcome it.  Buttinskis like All-Wise Dad and Ever-Helpful Nancy and Matchmaking Mom are shortcuts that can short-circuit that essential process.  Instead of bringing in meddlers to resolve conflict, use them to deepen it.  Instead of endowing mentors with all the wisdom and experience, force the protagonists to earn their own.  And instead of having matchmakers make the match happen, challenge the hero and heroine to make their own version of romance.

    And if the buttinskis protest too loudly, promise to give them a book of their own if they’ll just butt out.


Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.

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