Secondary Characters Who Steal the Spotlight

Eliza Sommers

Sometimes, secondary characters are as interesting as the stars of novels. They might have as many quirks, as much charisma, and other qualities that make them shine as brightly as the protagonist. In certain cases, they’re even more interesting.

Which can lead to the question: why weren’t they in the leading role? Well, who knows? The author wants what the author wants. 🙂 Or maybe some great secondary characters are better in smaller doses, or too villainous to get top billing, or of a certain gender, color, ethnicity, or sexual preference that unfortunately made it harder to be the protagonist in a novel written or set many years ago, or…

I just finished Isabel Allende’s fantastic Daughter of Fortune, whose fascinating protagonist Eliza Sommers (pictured above) leaves Chile to live in Gold Rush-era California. Eliza — only in her late teens for much of the novel — is brainy, talented, courageous, independent, adventurous, and adaptive. But the book’s Tao Chi’en — a secondary character who’s almost a co-star — is just as compelling. The widower and superb physician with a heart of gold shares Eliza’s aforementioned qualities, and succeeds in the face of anti-Chinese prejudice as much as Eliza succeeds amid a patriarchal society.

Lee, another came-to-California character of Asian descent, steals the show in John Steinbeck’s masterful East of Eden despite not being as prominent a character as several Trask family members. Lee is a cook/household manager who’s highly intelligent and keeps a level head when things get tough.

There’s also an employer-employee dichotomy in Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent The Lacuna, whose protagonist Harrison Shepherd is quite interesting in of himself (he’s gay, half-Mexican, becomes an accomplished author, and then a McCarthy-era victim) and via who he encounters (working for Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky). But his assistant, Violet Brown, is so efficient and appealingly quirky that she becomes just as memorable despite having a smaller role in the novel.

The handsome Daniel Deronda in George Eliot’s riveting novel of the same name is a skillful creation: kind, smart, and curious. But more fascinating is the woman who eventually falls in love with him, though she had married someone else out of financial desperation. The brainy, beautiful, spirited Gwendolen Harleth is spoiled and narcissistic early in the novel, but goes through a character arc that leaves her shaken but more caring, mature, and sympathetic.

Another 19th-century novel, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, stars a young/pre-Last of the Mohicans Natty Bumppo. He’s already a pretty interesting guy and skilled wilderness man, but I found Judith Hutter to be more compelling in the book. She’s a strong, proto-feminist character for her time: early-19th-century America.

I realize I’ve just scratched the surface here. Your examples of novels and characters that fit this theme?

Note: I wrote a somewhat-related 2018 post on notable sidekicks in literature — mentioning characters such as Hermione Granger of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Huck Finn of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Samwise Gamgee of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Sancho Panza of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Another note: My next column will post on Monday, December 16, rather than the usual Sunday (December 15).

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which talks about everything from snow to shopping locally — is here.

You Read and Adore and Then You Can Read More

Night WitchesOne of literature’s pleasures is reading an established living author for the first time, loving the novel, and knowing you not only have past books but (most likely) future ones to enjoy by that writer.

That was certainly my feeling when I recently finished The Huntress. Set during the World War II era, Kate Quinn’s fabulous 2019 historical novel focuses on the attempt to bring to justice a Nazi woman who murdered many children and adults before changing her identity, escaping Europe, and marrying into an American family. Her young-adult Boston stepdaughter Jordan grows to love her but is also suspicious of her, even as three Nazi hunters (including English war correspondent Ian Graham and Soviet aviator Nina Markova) team up to try to find her. Nina — who grew up abused, uneducated, and in grinding rural poverty to become one of the USSR’s famed “Night Witches” bomber pilots (shown in real life in the above photo) — is an especially memorable character creation: brave, brainy, feisty, funny, profane, vengeful, and a bit nuts.

The Huntress is one of the best books I’ve read in years by a living novelist. It’s masterfully written (as it jumps between different years and characters), it’s a thriller, it’s romantic, etc.

So, I’m very happy that there will be more Kate Quinn reading in my future. She has authored about a dozen books, and, given that she’s only 38, many more are sure to come.

A sampling of several other living novelists who fit this theme? I’ll go alphabetically.

I didn’t read Isabel Allende’s classic The House of the Spirits until about 20 years after its 1982 publication, so by that time there were plenty of other books in the Allende canon. (I’ve read Zorro, and am now in the middle of Daughter of Fortune, which is terrific so far; I’ll discuss it as part of next week’s post.) And Allende is still churning out fiction in her 70s.

My reading of Lee Child’s thrillers started several years ago with 2010’s 61 Hours — the 14th book in the riveting Jack Reacher series about a roaming loner righting wrongs. I soon doubled back to Child’s earlier novels and also moved forward to his later novels. His newest was published this fall, and he’s still cranking out one a year.

It was about a quarter-century after it was written before I got to Fannie Flagg’s enduring 1987 gem Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe — meaning there were quite a few other Flagg novels to read by then. I’ve since polished off all but one, including two the author wrote after I finished Fried Green Tomatoes. The second was published in 2016 (The Whole Town’s Talking), so Flagg was still writing novels fairly recently.

I’ve mentioned novelist/neuroscientist Lisa Genova a couple of times in recent posts after reading Still Alice (2007) earlier this year. That moving chronicle of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s quickly led me to two other excellent works by Geneva, who’s still only 49 with a long writing future.

John Grisham? I read that compelling author for the first time when I picked up his fourth novel, 1993’s The Client, around 2012 or so. I’ve since read four of his other novels — one pre-’93 (1991’s The Firm) and three post-’93 — from among the 30-plus he’s penned. His writing pace has yet to slow at 64.

It was also a fourth novel — 2011’s The Hypnotist’s Love Story — that introduced me to one of today’s best authors: Australia’s Liane Moriarty. I’ve yet to read her first three (darn local library doesn’t stock them), but have “consumed” her fifth, sixth (the especially engrossing Big Little Lies), and seventh novels. She’s just 53.

I finally read Walter Mosley’s first two Easy Rawlins mysteries (1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress and 1991’s A Red Death) a couple of years ago, and now there are 12 others in that series from which to choose — as well as many other Mosley novels. He’s still going strong at 67, with a new book set for 2020 release.

Lionel Shriver? I read her superb So Much For That a few years after it came out in 2010, and have since enjoyed three of her 14 other novels. She’s now 62, and — like Mosley — has another novel in the 2020 pipeline.

I was introduced to Zadie Smith’s work with On Beauty (2005), and then doubled back to her even better debut novel White Teeth (2000). Few authors depict our multicultural world better, and there are surely many more books in the 44-year-old’s future.

More than three-dozen years went by before I finally picked up Martin Cruz Smith’s gripping 1981 novel Gorky Park. That led me to read seven Gorky sequels and two of his standalone novels. He’s still writing at 77.

And Donna Tartt? I first read her third and most recent novel, the great The Goldfinch (2013), before going back to The Little Friend (2002) and The Secret History (1992). Yes, Tartt has penned just one novel every decade or so — meaning, at age 55, perhaps we might see two or three more?

Which living authors (whether mentioned by me or not) were you gratified to read for the first time — and gratified that there were many more of their novels available from their pasts and in their futures?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a Thanksgiving theme — is here.