Scheming Rivals and Deplorable Relatives: How Minor Characters Enrich a Romance

BY ANNE CLEELAND

Although opinions may vary, a list of the best romances of all time would probably include these four stories near the top:  Pride and Prejudice, Outlander, Jane Eyre, and Twilight.

What do these stories have in common?  The heroine has a Deplorable Relative as well as a Scheming Rival.  But that’s not all; the heroine also has a Kind Friend to confide in, a Despicable Villain to best, and at least one acquaintance who seems impossibly good.

Notice that—while the heroine is usually a complex combination of character traits—the secondary players all tend to fit into time-honored roles, almost as though they are placeholders.  There’s a reason for this, and it’s been the same reason since fairy tales were first recited: it makes for a very satisfying story.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie and Darcy’s happily ever after is made all the more sweet because we know Caroline Bingley is gnashing her teeth in frustrated rage somewhere.  Ditto for Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre who is—when you think about it—the same character as Caroline Bingley, and the same character as the Baroness von Schraeder in The Sound of Music, and the same character as either of the wicked stepsisters (take your pick) in Cinderella.  We get an extra measure of satisfaction when the union of the lovers also thwarts the Mean Girl, who didn’t deserve the hero in the first place.

Another staple character is the Deplorable Relative—which probably strikes such a chord because everyone has one.  The heroine is related to someone she’d rather not be related to, and it serves as another source of hardship.  Again, there is a fairy tale aspect to this element; Mrs. Bennet may not be wicked, but she is an embarrassment to Lizzie and one more reason she is ineligible as a potential bride.   Mrs. Reed is downright wicked to Jane, even after her promise to Jane’s dead uncle.  Bella’s mother sets all events in train by marrying someone unsuitable, and Dougal MacKenzie is not exactly what you would call a supportive uncle-in-law.

Of course, there are always exceptions to these placeholder roles—in Gone with the Wind, the Scheming Rival is the heroine of the story, after all—but in general, the addition of these tried-and-true characters helps to make a story three-dimensional and in a satisfying way, predictable.  As soon as we realize there is a Scheming Rival, we happily settle in to await her inevitable comeuppance.   When we are introduced to the Deplorable Relative, we are immediately aware that he or she will contribute to the conflict in the story—because that’s what Deplorable Relatives always do. And although we weep when the Impossibly Good Person dies, we saw it coming from a mile away.

In Daughter of the God-King, one of the secondary characters is the heroine’s companion, Bing.   Before I sold the story, an agent was very taken with this character, and suggested that I concoct a “story arc” for her.  I respectfully disagreed; Bing is the placeholder for the Staunch Supporter and in my view has no business competing with the heroine’s storyline.

The classic romance is all about the heroine—the heroine and her journey to happily ever after.  This being said, the storyline is enhanced many times over when along that journey the heroine interacts with interesting secondary characters—whether they be Staunch Supporters,  Vile Betrayers, or Kindly Benefactors.  It’s no coincidence that many of our favorite stories have a large, well-drawn supporting cast, and the heroine becomes a stronger and more compelling character because of it.

Who are your favorite secondary characters, and why?

dgk cover


AnneAnne Cleeland holds a degree in English from UCLA as well as a degree in law from Pepperdine University, and is a member of the California State Bar. She writes a contemporary mystery series set in New Scotland Yard as well as a historical fiction series set in the Regency period. A member of Mystery Writers of America and the Historical Novel Society, she lives in California and has four children. Her website is www.annecleeland.com.