When Writers Let Lesser Characters Rule

By Paula Margulies

While discussing Thackeray's Vanity Fair with my niece the other day, it struck me that the roguish villain, Becky Sharp, is one of the most memorable characters in fiction. And she's not the main character. In fact, I had trouble remembering the main character's name (Amelia), while Becky and the big-footed William Dobbin came to mind easily.

This discussion got me thinking about the characters my writing group members are creating. All of us are writing novels, and we all have pretty striking secondary characters. There's a gutsy German World War II POW with a French first name; a non-human child with tattoos and an endearing language all her own, who's trapped on a futuristic ship; a devoted African American man who nurtures his traumatized girlfriend without demanding explanations about her past; an elderly college professor who's liberal in his teaching, but fears his daughter's interest in an Indian man; a sexy and dangerous young girl, married to an aged Native American chief. None of these are the main characters in our books, yet all of them stand out -- in some cases, to the detriment of the protagonists.

I've pondered why so many authors give their lesser characters memorable characteristics, while their main characters appear faceless and dull. My sense is that, in our attempts to make our protagonists sympathetic, we often strip them of the very qualities that make them interesting. I also believe that many of us base our main characters on ourselves. And when we do this, we're loathe to give them flaws (we aren't like that, so why should they be?) or make them stand out in any way. What we end up with is ordinary protagonists, who pale in comparison to their more exciting and unique lesser counterparts.

Thakeray got away with creating dominant secondary characters, but I'm not sure modern writers can afford to do that. We need to assign some equally compelling characteristics to our main characters. Otherwise, the Becky Sharps and William Dobbins in our novels promise to steal the show.
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at, or visit her website at

1 comment: