How fresh are your second bananas?

By Kathryn Lilley

In any successful novel, the hero is the star of the story, but it’s the lesser characters–the second bananas–who carry the show. As a reader I get annoyed by stories that feature secondary characters who are limp or cardboard: The “blond, leggy” girl who is tossed in for a smidgen of sexual tension; the “beefy cop” who turns up at a crime scene; the “tired-looking” hotel clerk. At these moments it’s like the writer is screaming to the reader, “Hey, I need to include this character to move the scene forward, but don’t bother paying attention to him.”

All secondary characters, major or minor, need to live and breathe for the reader. In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that every character in a book thinks of himself or herself as the main character. Whenever that character is on stage, even briefly, he should be presented as if a spotlight is shining on him.

During a radio interview about my latest book, Makeovers Can Be Murder, the host asked me questions about a couple of the minor characters in the story. One of the characters had two walk-on appearances in the book; the other guy you never even saw, just heard him referred to. And yet the host had a sense of them, was drawn in enough to speculate about their motivations. I felt happy about that, like I’d done my job as a writer.

When I think of strong secondary characters, a few standouts come to mind: Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird; Melanie in Gone with the Wind; the wealthy, pompous Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice.

Which secondary characters are the most memorable for you in thrillers or mysteries? (Other than Dr. Watson–too easy.) Do you think most authors in the genre do a good job or a poor job or portraying second bananas?

11 thoughts on “How fresh are your second bananas?

  1. “And yet the host had a sense of them, was drawn in enough to speculate about their motivations.” Sounds like you did a great job, Kathryn. That’s what we all strive to achieve—living, breathing characters, even the second bananas.

    Two secondary characters come to mind for me right off the bat. M and Q. Although James Bond was the star and central figure in all the books and movies, the personalities of M and Q were strong and memorable from the start. And as the actors that played them grew older and were replaced, their characteristics were respected and preserved because they were so masterfully developed in the first place.

  2. How about the nun in James Scott Bell’s Try Darkness?! She was a hoot from page one. That book’s about the only one I know of that works when it opens with dialogue. I tell my writing class that if they’re going to open with dialogue, they’d better have something as amazing as Try Darkness. I read the first page or so to them and had them scrambling to write down the title and author.

  3. Kowalski from James Rollins’ Sigma Force novels is always fun.

    JK Rowling is a master at creating memorable secondary characters, like Hermione, Dumbledore, and the hissable Professor Snape.

  4. I love M & Q, Joe, although I confess I know them only from the movies. Jim, you’re right that Shakespeare is the master at creating secondary characters. Terri, I’m putting Try Darkness on the top of my TBR pile as we speak. Nothing I love better than a crazy nun!
    Boyd, JK Rowling’s characters had my daughter in thrall during her entire childhood. We always preordered them to get them delivered asap.

  5. I have always loved the secondaries and the sidekicks. They are what makes the story real. One of my favourites is Alfred, Batman’s butler. Maybe its because that is the role I see myself in. Making the hero ready for his job, and watching out for his safety.
    Whether it is a character in a support role, comic relief, or just a passer by those brief mentions and short walk ons give the story a depth of realism.

    In my podcast drama/novels listeners often comment that the secondary characters are their favourites. So in response to your query; my second bananas are pretty ripe.


  6. Two come to mind for me – maybe because they are “fresh” in my mind – see, I can play along with the fresh theme. Anyway, one from an old pro and one from a budding star.

    Joe Pike from Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole series.

    And Gravedigger Peace from Sean Chercover’s first two novels.

    And I think these two “sidekicks” would get along swimmingly.

  7. Definitely Ian Malcolm, the expert in chaos theory in Jurassic Park. Of course, I have a thing for mathematicians. But seriously, while a secondary character, he really is pivotal to the plot. And much of the dialogue I remember from that book is spoken by Ian. My favorite quote? “The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here uh… staggers me.” You can tell that Crichton really loved this character. I think that as an author, if you don’t love each of your characters, it will show.

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