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.