Every good story has a villain… or does it? Villains certainly have their place in our literary landscape. What would Cinderella be without her Wicked Step Mother, after all? Or what would Coronation Street be without the likes of Richard Hillman, Maya Sharma and Pat Phelan creeping the cobbles? (Wuzzup, fellow Corrie fans!) A villain is a tried-and-true anti-character that can always be relied upon to challenge the protagonist and propel the plot. And yeah, they’re perfectly acceptable features, especially in genre fiction—Wheel of Time, anyone? But me personally? I don’t like writing them. In fact, I avoid them as much as I can, and when I have to use them, they’re never traditional (read: pure, irredeemable evil).
I much prefer to spend my time developing a complement of lovable secondary characters. In just about every book I’ve written, the antagonist is an outside force—political turbulence (A Noble Treason), cultural pressures (A Noble Deception), personal demons (The Haunting of Tess), and so on. To help my protagonists through their journeys, the secondary characters are the ones who can always be relied on to lend support, devotion, or even comic relief.
I remember a friend telling me he would love to know Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey in real life. He is the solid, dependable father figure my friend always wanted. It is these types of relationships I strive to forge between my secondary characters and my readers in my writing. After all, it’s the protagonist that carries the story, but it is the cast of secondary characters that make you fall in love with it.
I’d love to introduce you to a few of the characters from my books that I’ve fallen in love with, and which my readers have reached out to me to tell me how much they loved, too.
Harold Lamb – The Ghosts of Tullybrae House
The 70-year-old butler of Tullybrae House in the Scottish Highlands, Lamb is as stoic as he is slow of gait. He’s a man who keeps his emotions to himself, but whose silence speaks volumes about the depths of his affections. The bubbly personality of new curator Emmie Tunstall is the antithesis of his reserve; in her, Lamb finds a friend whom he grows to love as a daughter figure.
Lamb nodded, contemplating. He was a man of few words. But then, he didn’t need many words. He was one of those rare individuals, she was coming to understand, whose silence spoke volumes.
“You’re a sweet man, Lamb. I probably say that too much, and I’m sorry if I’m making you uneasy. Tell me to stop if I am.”
He inclined his head, his white hair catching the glow of the wall lamp behind him. “I suspect it’s much like your mother. Your adoptive mother, that is. It may make you uneasy to receive her open and unabashed affections, because it is no’ something that feels natural to you. But you would certainly be sorry if she ever ceased to offer them.”
Uncle Greg and Aunt Lynn – The Other Side of Dawn
When Casey Becker travels to Scotland for a fresh start, she stays with her aunt and uncle who own and operate a village pub in the Highlands. Their steadfast loyalty and unconditional trust are exactly what Casey needs at a time when she is trying to put her life back together.
“I think I’d like to give the cottage a go, as long as you’re okay with it. I mean, you’re not trying to rent it out right now, are you?”
“Don’t ye worry about that,” Aunt Lynn assured her. “We’ve more than enough coming in from the pub now, we can afford to shut it down for a while.”
“What about the rent rate? A whole cottage is bigger than the room I was going to take above the pub.”
“We’ll keep it the same.”
“That doesn’t sound fair.”
“The rate we agreed on included food,” Aunt Lynn argued. “If ye’re on yer own now, ye’ll have to shop for yerself. And I think ye’ll find that the pound doesn’t go as far as yer dollar would back home.”
“What about heat and hydro?” Casey pressed.
“Never mind about that.”
“Aunt Lynn, I’m not here to take advantage. I want to be able to pay my own way. Or at least to work for it.”
“Hush now, geddle,” Aunt Lynn insisted. “This is not a business deal. It’s family. Ye need a change, and we’re more than happy to have ye. We’d have ye for nothing if ye hadn’t been so pig-headed about that rent nonsense in the first place.”
Casey narrowed her eyes at her aunt, who narrowed her eyes back. Casey was the first to give in.
“All right. But only so long as you promise that if you feel I’m not pulling my weight, we’ll renegotiate our arrangement.”
“I absolutely promise,” Aunt Lynn lied, and patted Casey’s hand on top of the table.
Roisin – A Noble Treason
When Lady Eleanor Douglas flees her home to save her imprisoned father, she finds an unlikely friend in a whore. Roisin is scrappy and hardened, at the same time that she’s extraordinarily loyal and wise beyond her years. She is the truest friend Lady Eleanor has ever had.
They chatted along the way. Dougall told her about life in Kildrummond, and about his duties and responsibilities as captain of the guard. He told her about the Douglas feud with King James, the battle of Arkinholm, and how old John Douglas had named Lachlan Ramsay his heir.
She loved the part about Lachlan and Moira, and Alex and Lady Glinis the best. She made him tell it twice.
“I wonder how she is, Lady Glinis,” he pondered. “I’ve had no word on the state of her health, on the babe, or on how Sir Alex is taking it all. She was told to expect to lose the child, for her barrenness would likely not support the life for long.”
“Who says that?”
“The midwife, and the monks from the abbey. They are learned in the ways of the body and its functions. They know about things such as these.”
“My eye.” Roisin was indignant. “These so-called learned men ken nothing of women and the birthing process. Nor the midwives, come to that, except how to pull a babe out, and perhaps the herbs that will ease the mother’s pain. No one can tell; my mam told me that. Is it possible that yer Lady Glinis could lose the child? Aye. But ’tis also possible that yer Lady Moira will lose hers. ’Tis just as likely that Lady Glinis will birth a healthy babe and live to enjoy him as it is that a lass as sturdy and healthy as our Nolie births a sickly babe and dies from it. ’Tis more to do with chance than anything else.”
“Is that meant to make me feel better? Or worse?”
Roisin released an indulgent sigh. “Men. Ye fret something terrible. I didna mean to do anything, Sir Dougall, but to remind ye that fretting is pointless. ’Tis a waste of yer precious time. Ye’d be better to spend it enjoying what ye have today than fretting about what ye might no’ have tomorrow.”
It’s easy to write a villain,–just as easy as it is to hate one. Writing a lovable character is more of a challenge because it requires a writer to dig deep and find what it is that makes them lovable in a realistic way. But the challenge is worth the reward when we see our readers fall in love with those lovable characters.
That’s because, as we were writing them, we fell in love with them, too.