These days my students smile the moment the phrase ‘secondary character’ comes our of my lips, as they have heard me say already many times that we have neglected them woefully. They smile as a polite way to tell me that I need to be more persuasive, for everyone knows that the main characters are the ones that carry the weight of the fictional text, hence the only ones that deserve being the object of literary analysis.
I have, however, already showed to my two classes that a) in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games a great deal of the plot depends on decisions made extradiagetically (um, secretly!) by secondary characters (the scheming President Alma Coin but also, intriguingly, fashion designer Cinna); b) in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the real plot mover may be the wicked Arthur Huntingdon and not the protagonist, his saintly wife Helen, but the greatly neglected plot shaker is his sexy mistress, Annabella Wilmot. Likewise, in Dickens’ Great Expectations, which I am about to start teaching again, although Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch are impressive secondary characters, it is actually the far more secondary Compeyson who sets the plot in motion. Literally, for he is bound by a (criminal) plot to both.
Literary Studies has paid very scant attention to the secondary character. To begin with, there is doubt about when a character is a protagonist or just a supporting actor (I’m thinking here of Iago in Othello). In, for instance, Wuthering Heights, the elder Catherine is universally regarded to be a main character. Her daughter, also named Catherine, plays in the second part of Emily Brontë’s novel a similarly important role; nonetheless, she has hardly received any critical attention. There may be, then, plenty of analyses of particular secondary characters, as I have found in a quick search, but there is not a sustained theoretical approach to how they are built and how/why they matter.
In this quick search, combining the MLA database and WorldCat, I have found, as I should expect, more articles and dissertations than books about the secondary character–all in all, less than 60 documents since the 1970s, and only if we combine in this list four different major languages. The books are actually just two: Peter Bly’s The Wisdom of Eccentric Old Men: A Study of Type and Secondary Character in Galdós’s Social Novels, 1870-1897 (2004) and Jennifer Camden’s Secondary Heroines in Nineteenth-Century British and American Novels (2010), both originating in doctoral dissertations. Also committed to making the most of the secondary character is the monographic issue published by the French and English-language journal Belphégor in November 2006 (https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/handle/10222/31210). The issue, nonetheless, is focused on the flexibility of secondary characters in their diverse media adaptations, rather than to an in-depth consideration of their role in print fiction.
Fictional characters, generally speaking, are underanalysed as literary constructions. This is why what Lennard J. Davis had to say about them 30 years ago in his singular 1987 volume Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction is still relevant (the book was reissued recently, in 2014). In a fascinating chapter called “Characters, narrators, and readers: Making friends with signs”, Davis explains that characters “are designed to elicit maximum identification with the observer” and that “their existence is part of a monolithic structure created by an author”; that is to say, they are a function of the text.
Characters, Davis adds, do not have a personality: they have characteristics, although the main trick that novelists play upon us, readers, is making us believe that a limited set of features constitutes a human-like personality. “In essence,” Davis argues “the feeling that we get that we are watching a complex character is largely an illusion created by the opposite–the relatively small number of traits that make up a character”. Oddly, Davis focuses on how attractive protagonists are created to be desired “in some non-specific but erotic way” because “part of novel reading is the process of falling in love with characters or making friends with signs”. Yet, he misses the chance to consider, first, what minimum number of traits gives secondary characters a distinct personality; second, in how many tiers are they organized (from your basic ‘spear carrier’ with no lines to almost-protagonist) and, third, how much of any novel’s appeal depends on them.
In cinema things are slightly different, if only because the Oscars (and the Emmys for TV) acknowledge actors’ merits in two categories: leading and supporting. This is not without controversy for, often, production companies try to have co-protagonists nominated in both categories so as to increase the chances of a particular film to win an Oscar (or two). Other strange things often happen in connection to the Oscars. This year Viola Davis won as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Fences, even though she is the female lead in that film. I don’t believe that she has less screen time than Ruth Negga, nominated as Best Actress in a Leading Role for Loving–but of course, how could Davis compete with Emma Stone, everyone’s favourite for La La Land?
‘Screen time’ is, of course, also a very tricky concept to measure the ‘secondariness’ of a role: Judith Dench got a very well-deserved Oscar for playing Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love (1998), a performance lasting all of… eight minutes. It turns out that the record is in the hands of Beatrice Straight for a six-minute role as a spurned wife in Network (1976). This is fine as, precisely, Straight’s win shows that what matters in a secondary character is not the extent of their presence but of their impact.
Whereas screenwriters can congratulate themselves for having written secondary characters that, in the right hands, become Oscar-worthy, (print) fiction writers are not granted any special merit for creating great supporting roles. Praise usually goes in the direction of number, rather than specific successful characterization. There are exceptions, of course. Dickens’ disciple J.K. Rowling gave us in Harry Potter a marvellous secondary character list that kept the best British actors happy for years, whether they had been chosen to play minor roles (Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart) or fundamental ones (Alan Rickman as Severus Snape). Fans claim that Rowling came up with 772 characters, though apparently ‘only’ 136 receive enough attention to qualify as main or secondary (with lines), the rest are just names dropped in passing into the text.
The list of Dickensian characters runs to many more hundreds, among which the secondary roles come in all sizes and types, from the cheeky Artful Dodger, to the ill-treated Bob Cratchit, or the brutal Bentley Drummle. And the inevitable ‘spear carriers’. Dickens, indeed, seems to be the only writer in English always drawing praise for his secondary roles, even far above Shakespeare, who could do Mercutio brilliantly but somehow fell short with the likes of Count Paris. In a 2012 article, Paul Bailey enthuses about Dickens’ “ability to catch life on the hop” and chronicle life through his myriad minor people. There is, however, still that elephant in the room as beyond creative writing courses (I assume), nobody is trying to analyze secondary characters in fiction. How do writers ‘do’ them?
Perhaps this academic feet-dragging should be blamed onto genius playwright Tom Stoppard, who had the last word (and the last laugh?) with his 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead. In it Prince Hamlet’s hapless university classmates, called by King Claudius and commissioned to help do away with the obnoxious heir to the Danish throne, meet a sad end, as happens in Shakespeare’s play, of course. What changes in Stoppard’s witty version is the focalization: whereas the hesitant blonde prince is our delegate in the original text, in this other play the pair of minor characters are the protagonists. That they have no idea of what is going on and that their lives only appear to make sense (if any) when Hamlet is on stage is a wonderful comment on the role of secondary characters. Also, a sort of self-defeating strategy, since few authors can pull the trick of using secondary characters as narrators and focalisers without promoting them to the main role–the exception being, of course, Nelly in Wuthering Heights, who remains elusively secondary.
In The Hunger Games there is a secondary character called Johanna Mason, a former victor in the 71st edition of the Games. Ostensibly introduced as a lesser rival to Katniss Everdeen, Johanna turns out to be her reluctant secret ally. Spunky, forthright, angry and resilient, Mason is so well-drawn despite her very limited presence that many fans wish Collins should have chosen her to play hero. You should have seen the smiles in my students’ faces when we briefly discussed her. Briefly because, of course, being a secondary character Johanna only got whatever little time was left after we finished discussing Katniss. Now I know those few minutes was far less than her contribution to the success of the trilogy deserved. Next time I teach The Hunger Games I’ll do it the other way round: beginning with the secondary characters.
One day I should teach a course called ‘Great Secondary Characters of English Literature’… Let’s start a list!
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