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 The latest weekly piece — which talks about everything from snow to shopping locally — is here.

35 thoughts on “Secondary Characters Who Steal the Spotlight

  1. I would go so far as to say that the character wants what the character wants.
    Thank you for the share and food-for-thought. It is true. Secondary characters lead the spotlight. I question cases in some of my writing why one character, in spite of not being a lead, takes the spotlight. After opening up about this to my sister whom isn’t a writer by trade, I realized that to put it plainly into words, the characters seem to write the story and change what I had originally intended for the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In “Anna Karenina” Anna’s brother Oblonsky is an amoral womanizer who is careless with money. However he is also charming, most people like him, and he really knows how to throw a party. The author Tolstoy clearly disapproved of his behavior but he generally steals any scene that he appears in. However, he is the shallowest of all the major characters in this novel

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  3. In many of Dickens’ novels, the secondary characters are more interesting than the protagonists, I feel that Dickens was a master in creating somewhat caricatured flat characters whether comic or villainous. He seemed to be at his weakest when he has to probe into his characters’ psychology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tony! Very true that Dickens’ secondary characters often “stole the show.” Also the case with some other authors. And, yes, Dickens’ characters were not as three-dimensional as those of a number of other renowned authors — including his contemporary George Eliot.


  4. Ah the role of secondaries. I must admit that while she was somewhat vile I rather liked Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, and of course rebecca herself, while I found the narrator. something of a bore. But maybe that was intentional, since she was never named. Dickens, of course, had a ton of fascinating secondaries. Obviously a lot of that was of its time when it came to narration,a though obviously too there’s plenty authors today who do that. The potter books are a case in point. Often a secondary will take over a book if they aren’t hammered down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Rebecca” is such a great novel. And, yes, a vile or somewhat vile character can really steal the show, even if one wouldn’t want them over for dinner. (Maybe a quick buffet breakfast…)

      So true about Dickens — dozens of memorable secondary characters. As is also the case in the “Harry Potter” books. Long novels or series definitely give an author more of a canvas for supporting players.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Also many still use the god narrator instead of that of the protagonist. You are right re the dinner party, unless one had a food taster present, one would need to be very careful of one’s choice of guests. Maybe even one’s choice of food unless one wanted to breathe one’s last over the hors d’oeuvres, or indeed become them.


        • Very true about many authors using the god narrator rather than the protagonist’s voice. I’m happy with either; a good author can handle both well. But my favorite novel, “Jane Eyre,” happens to do first person VERY effectively.


  5. I think Dickens deserves a strong mention here. He always had secondary characters that were more memorable than the main characters: Mrs. Havisham, Mr. Micawber, The Artful Dodger, Pegotty….

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  6. Dave, how about Jumpa Lahiri`s The Lowland, the girl Bela, who was ababdoned by her mother when five Gouri and was raised by Subhash whom she believed was her father, was a secondary charactor but was an unforgettable one.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Well, in the funny papers, there’s Snuffy Smith, though Google still appears in the title. You can google it.. Ignatz Mouse, heaver of bricks from Colin Kelly’s brickyard, is at least the object of readerly interest that Krazy Kat is, who is her/himself, the object of all those bricks, though the strip is named after the Kat only.

    In Shakespeare, Mercutio and Falstaff come to mind. And in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Satan gets a lot of lines, and the best ones.

    Huck got a book to himself after many pages of sidekicking with T. Sawyer.

    In flicks, Peter Lorre takes all the oxygen out of the room whenever appears in “Secret Agent”. From star John Gielgud! Then there’s the great Sidney Greenstreet, who becomes the focus of my attention whenever and however he appears, no matter how minor the billing or the character portrayed. In “The Mask of Dimitrios”, he does what Lorre did to Gielgud. To Peter Lorre!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Definitely scene-stealing secondary characters in all kinds of media, not just literature. Supporting actors and actresses in movies can be eccentric and/or generally amazing, as you gave two examples of. And if a character is EVIL in novels or other creations, that can help — Satan, Lord Voldemort, etc.

      In comic strips, one could also argue that several characters in “Doonesbury” are more interesting and/or more prominent than Mike Doonesbury himself.

      Huck was justly rewarded with his own book, which of course ended up being quite a bit “deeper” than “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”


  8. I think Professor Snape fits in pretty good for me on this category! We all love HP and his very cool friends, but the backstory of Snape and his many layers and complexities always intrigued me a lot more. As for some of my more recent reads, A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum saw me liking the very eccentric brother character rather than the main girl (not that she wasn’t interesting, I was just drawn to the brother a bit more). I would also mention One Day in December by Josie Silver. The main character Laurie was fabulous, but her best friend Sarah always lit up the pages a bit more. It seems she was written that way on purpose, since she is portrayed as very outgoing and the one that people gravitate towards. Yet she was so much more than the typical “popular girl” type character – she had a lot going on in her heart and mind, and she clearly had a very deep layer of caring for her friend, as well as a lot of hidden insecurities that made her very engaging.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! Severus Snape is a secondary character who definitely left a huge footprint in the “Harry Potter” books — with a big reason for that indeed being his “many layers and complexities.” Is he evil? Is he good? Is he a mix? We eventually find out, of course, but we’re left guessing for quite a while before that.

      And those characters from “A Bend in the Stars” and “One Day in December” sound like terrific examples of supporting cast members who steal the show.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I have just figured out how I can exponentially increase my reading breadth and depth. All I need to do is stop by your place. By the way, I love your book – brilliant and so well put together to inspire more reading.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Some great books there, Dave!

    This post makes me think of “Vanity Fair,” and who is the main character there. Is it Becky Sharp? Or does she just dominate the narrative so much that she seems like the main character?

    And Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” is, of course, about the titular hero, but the real hero of the piece is maybe Tatyana Larina, the young woman whom he initially rejects but later falls in love with. Pushkin says in the novel that his muse appeared to him in her form, and that she was much too good for Onegin.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Elena! Sounds like two great examples!

      I haven’t read “Vanity Fair” since college (so I’ve basically forgotten it 🙂 ) and haven’t gotten to “Eugene Onegin” yet. Given the Pushkin muse you mentioned, Tatyana Larina must be an important character. And, yes, someone can seem like a novel’s star yet really be part of an ensemble.

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