A romance novel is all about the hero and heroine, their journey to connect and learning to love one another. It can be tempting to put all one’s writing energy and creativity in to those characters, but you do so at your own peril – professionally speaking.
While you want the story to center on the stars, it is the surrounding cast of characters that makes the story interesting, creates intrigue, adds depth to the plot, and fills out the world. Creating interesting secondary and tertiary characters means you have a layered world and community for your hero/heroine to interact with and for your readers to wonder about.
In Romanceland, everyone deserves their own Happily Ever After. So while stand-alone titles are great, it is the development of a series that makes for a successful career.
Get in the habit of populating your world with three dimensional side characters and you will have a good sized population to choose from when the time comes.
Have you read The Bridgerton Series by Julia Quinn? In many ways, that series is your standard regency romance: ballrooms and rogues and beautiful dresses. But this one is special, it has risen above many other series to obtain cult status. Maybe it’s because of the large family that gets on each other’s nerves, teases each other without mercy, and loves each other unconditionally. Many people can relate that, and for those who can’t – maybe they find themselves wishing that had been their lot instead. It certainly seems like a great family to be a part of.
While the whole series is beloved by many, there is something special about book four, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton.
I spoke about this book, and this topic, at my local Romance Writers of America meeting and as soon as I mentioned the title, there were gasps and sighs around the room. Colin! Yes, he is the Mr. Bridgerton the book centers on, but I want to talk about Penelope.
Our heroine, Penelope, shows up as a side character in a couple of books before getting her own happily ever after. The glittering world of London Ballrooms has not been kind to her and there’s a lovely passage about how she sees herself:
Deep inside she knew who she was and that person was smart and kind and often even funny, but somehow her personality always got lost somewhere between her heart and her mouth, and she found herself saying the wrong thing or more often nothing at all.
So many of us can relate to this. Over the course of previous books, we see Penelope’s social awkwardness and missteps. She is not a central charcter in those books, she does not have very many pages dedicated to her. But she makes an impression because the reader can relate.
This doesn’t happen on accident. I don’t know when Ms. Quinn decided that Penelope would be getting her own book, it may have been part of her plan from the beginning, or perhaps it was after the character had been in a few scenes that she started to form the ideas for her story. What I do know is that Penelope is not the only interesting side character in that series. There are a number of people in that world that are interesting and relatable and intriguing. I suspect that if she chose to, Ms. Quinn could write about them for another ten years and still have more to work with because she takes the time to make those side characters interesting.
Every word characters say, every trait they possess is a choice made by the author. Taking the time to create interesting and three-dimensional side characters means that your whole world is more interesting. Everyone has a past. Everyone has feelings and dreams, moments they regret and those they treasure. Even a tertiary guest at the ball whose sole purpose is to say something that makes everyone uncomfortable.
Think about the experiences – happy, sad, challenging, joyful – that made them into the person they are today. Take the time to give those side characters some depth. Not all of this will end up on the page in that first or second book. But it will be useful down the line when you are thinking about your series.
Now for those of you that are pantsers*, I know that the idea of having a large cast of fully fleshed out characters is giving you hives.
Write in the way that works for you, but do spend a little more time exploring your side characters and thinking about what makes them tick. Get into the habit of fleshing out these side characters and giving them depth so that the world in your book is more colorful and vibrant. Plus, you will have interesting characters to pluck from the sidelines of one book and place squarely in the center of another.
* Pantsers - those that write by the seat of their pants, they work without an outline or only have a vague idea of where the story is going.