Wednesday, December 1, 2010


by Margaret Birth

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, one of the fun things I did was take voice lessons at the university’s affiliated Eastman School of Music. One of the not-so-fun things that happened to me was to have a recital, in which I was singing, interrupted by a member of the audience. Some lunatic lady left her front-row seat and began to crawl around in front of the stage while she muttered loudly, “Where is that violin? Why can’t I find that violin?”

It was quite disconcerting. I actually stopped in the middle of a song because I was so distracted, and because I figured no one was paying attention to my performance anyway. Finally, once she realized that a lot of people were staring at her, the crazy lady sat back down, and I started to sing again.

Like anyone who’s expecting to be the center of attention, I did not appreciate being upstaged. All right, all right—I’ll admit that, just possibly, that might sound like a kind of egotistical attitude . . . sort of. But, hey, how would you like to have someone else steal the show—even if you were just a character in a book, and the show-stealer was one of your secondary characters? Our heroes, our heroines, and our readers deserve better than that.

How to accomplish it, though? It can be tricky, because we want our readers to like all of our characters (with the possible exception of our bad guys), and we want all of our characters to be memorable. Sometimes, we might even want to take a strong secondary character from one book and turn him or her into a primary character in another book, and turn that second story into a spin-off of the first. Nevertheless, our heroes and heroines are supposed to be the stars of our stories, and their supporting cast (secondary characters) is supposed to either help them out or shut up and get out of the way, whichever is needed most. So, here are some suggestions for keeping those secondary characters under control:

COUNT – Count the number of viewpoint characters in your book. These are characters through whose perspective you tell a scene (or, if you’re not the point-of-view purist that I am, characters through whose perspective you tell part of a scene). Some romance novels have only (1) the heroine; many include (2) the hero; a few also include (3) the villain(ess) and/or (4) the confidant. A typical category contemporary or historical romance novel these days totals roughly 200-350 manuscript pages; and the fewer pages there are, the fewer viewpoint characters you should include. More than four can make it hard for readers to follow, and makes it likelier that you’ll focus too much on secondary characters and focus too little on primary characters—your heroine and hero.

RE-COUNT – Once you’ve finished recounting your tale on paper, re-count the total number of scenes in the manuscript. Think about this: if a book needs to focus at least 50% on the development of a couple’s love story in order to be defined as a romance novel, then doesn’t it stand to reason that at least 50% of the scenes in a romance novel should be told from the heroine or hero’s point of view?

COUNTERACT – If, as you read your manuscript, it starts to feel like another character, other than your hero or heroine, is more interesting and more amusing than they are, you have a problem—and you need to make one of these choices:

(1) Downplay the role of the buttinski secondary character; take more of his or her scenes and switch them to a primary character’s point of view.

(2) Draw up character worksheets—physical descriptions, backgrounds, goals, likes and dislikes, etc.—and beef up your hero and heroine until they’re more fascinating than this story-stealing interloper.

Or: (3) Trash the manuscript you thought you were writing, and surrender to your passion for story-telling—and let this charming supporting actor take the lead in an all-new show!♥

Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor. It's all of this experience on both sides of the publishing desk that has inspired her column, "The Write Stuff," which has appeared regularly in RWA/NYC's newsletter, Keynotes, for the past ten years.


  1. Margaret - seeing how many times I have read in an author's intro to a book that she had to give her readers that particular character the book of his/her own that they had been clamoring for tells you just how easy it might be for one character to upstage another. Your ideas are great for making sure the scales stay tipped in the right direction. I've had a situation where my VILLAIN (a most heinous character) started pushing everyone off to the side! Thank you for sharing all these terrific tips.

  2. Loved your recital story, Margaret. I give you credit for pulling it together and carrying on.

    I had a contest judge tell me they liked a secondary character better than my hero. That spelled trouble. So I promised him his own book and had a little talk with the hero.

  3. Margaret, your posts have a way of making me stop and think about what I'm doing and double checking that I'm on track. Thanks for the, as usual, great advice!

  4. Thanks for the compliments, y'all!

    As you know, I spent 7 years as a freelance manuscript reader--having to read, summarize, and analyze manuscripts that came in over the transom--and that really got me started with regard to picking apart the nuts and bolts of story, and figuring out what works and what doesn't. When a writer can learn to analyze and verbalize what does or doesn't seem to be working well in a story, that's a great comfort and a real help--and it's something I enjoy sharing with others.

    Blessings to all of you,