Talking About Secondary Characters
It’s so nice to be back on Tule’s blog to visit with you and to share a bit about The Great Montana Cowboy Auction, the latest in a series I’ve been writing about — you guessed it — cowboys!
While it definitely features cowboys and is set in Elmer, Montana, this book has a broader scope than the earlier ones. Those focused on the relationship of a single couple. But in The Great Montana Cowboy Auction, while there is still a ‘focus’ couple – it’s more of an ‘ensemble piece.’
The main reason I’ve written romance novels over the years is because I love to explore relationships – and the relationship between two people that deepens and eventually encourages them to fall in love and become a couple is, to me, always fascinating.
But couples don’t live in isolation. They have family, friends, associates, neighbors. In another of my great loves – family history research – these people are called FANs, an acronym that the astute, well-respected genealogist, Elizabeth Shown Mills, coined from the initial letters (or should it be FFANs?) to describe the people who are part of the context of the focus person’s life. In novels we call them “secondary characters.”
Generally, no matter what book I’m writing, during the editing process I can almost always count on my editor (not just one editor, but all of my editors since the beginning of time!) saying, “You might want to think about cutting back on the secondary characters.”
Er, well, yes. But it’s a rare life that has just two people in it. We all exist in relationships beyond the one we create with our significant other – and characters in books are no different. And those FANs do their part in making the central characters who they are.
So, I love secondary characters – in my family history research, of course, but even more in the books I write. I learn about the people I’m researching in our family history by learning about the people who mattered to them, whose lives impacted theirs. And I learn about my main characters exactly the same way.
Polly McMaster, the main character of The Great Montana Cowboy Auction, jumped full-blown onto the page the minute I started the book. That was a surprise for me because, usually, my heroes are the ones threatening to take over on page one. And while Sloan Gallagher, cowboy-turned-actor-turned-Hollywood-star, is definitely capable of doing that, he meets his match in Polly.
Polly is the poster child for If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. It isn’t that she wants so much busyness in her life; she certainly doesn’t go looking for it. It’s just that so many things — and so many people – depend on her.
She is the widowed mother of four kids, a woman who holds two jobs – postmistress and mayor of Elmer, Montana – who takes part-time online university classes, who is the mainstay of not just her kids’ lives, but of also her widowed mother’s and her unmarried sister’s. So when local rancher Maddie Fletcher is in danger of losing her ranch to foreclosure and the community decides to have an auction to raise money to save it, guess who ends up in charge.
Of course, Polly can’t say no because it’s a Worthy Cause, and Polly believes in Worthy Causes. She was one, after all, when her husband Lew died and the locals all gathered round to care for her and her kids. Now — once again – it’s Polly’s turn. And in the course of getting the auction off the ground, Polly’s life – her past, her choices, her decisions — intersect with many others’. Her FANs have an impact on her — and, of course, vice versa.
One of those is Polly’s widowed mother, Joyce, who’s getting to grips with life on her own since the death of her rancher husband. She’s sold the ranch to the Nichols brothers, Mace and Shane (if you read A Cowboy’s Tears or The Cowboy Steals a Lady, you’ll have met them before they became “secondary characters”) and she’s moved to Elmer to live with Polly.
Joyce helps give structure to the family life Polly is holding together. She’s learning macrame and economics and Spanish and has recently taken a job as a hospital receptionist in Livingston because, unlike Polly, Joyce needs to be busier, to find a new purpose in her life. What she finds is nothing she expects. I was as surprised as Joyce was. Also, Joyce is the one who suggests an auction to raise money to help Maddie. So, basically, everything that happens after that, Polly can blame on her mother.
And then there’s Celie, Polly’s younger sister. Two sisters less alike could hardly be imagined (unless you knew my mother and her sister, and, yes, they were perhaps a bit of inspiration — sometimes art does imitate life!)
While Polly deals with reality here and now on a regular in-your-face basis, Celie takes her reality in bite-sized pieces. She has her reasons. But she has a fantasy life that is a whole lot more interesting and, she would say, saner than her sister’s real one.
Until it’s not.
When Celie’s fantasy collides with reality, she has some serious decisions to make. I thought Celie would be an interesting subplot – a foil for Polly, as it were. But Celie had no intention of being a subplot. She was tired of playing second fiddle. She had a story to tell – and by the time I got to 100,000 words I understood that all too well. I began to cut. And cut. Suffice it to say, Celie will have her own book coming out next spring.
And there’s Sara. Polly’s oldest daughter, at nineteen, is as structured and by-the-book as her mother is not. Sara was another surprise – to me and her mother both. I thought I understood Sara quite well until I got inside her head. There I found that Sara has hidden depths that probably surprise even Sara herself.
As in real life, each of these women’s lives weaves in and out of the others’. They are primary characters in their own stories, secondary in each other’s. They create a community – and a context – in which The Great Montana Cowboy Auction takes place.
If course, they are not the only ones who have an impact on each other’s lives. Every one of the characters matters. Some provide a reason for something to happen, some provide lenses through which to understand why someone behaves the way she does.
Surprisingly, to me at least, it’s a lot like family history. I’ve now spent nearly 40 years trying to understand the reasons my characters do what they do, what motivates them. And it turns out that both ancestors and characters in books respond to the other people in their lives. Those people matter. They have their own stories when we have the space to tell them.
And not one of them is really ‘secondary.’ But there are word count limits, so editors are sometimes compelled to tell us that they are!
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