Secondary Characters

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Julian Fellowes continues to amaze me. Loyal viewers are as engaged in Downton Abbey’s final season episodes as they were during the first season. No doubt the historian that was hired to advise and ensure the authenticity and consistency of every detail contributes to its enduring success. I blogged about what writers can learn from the growing phenomenon three years ago, here. Now, in the sixth and final season, I’m convinced the use of secondary characters, lesser characters and servants, is the primary technique that endears the Crawleys to viewers. Here is my case for the power of secondary characters.

Because proper decorum for aristocrats in the Gilded Age constrained them Secondary Characters 2from expressing emotion in public, Julian Fellowes needed to reveal deeper layers of the main characters another way as they adjusted ever so slowly to the new ways of the Progressive Age. His choice to employ secondary characters is brilliant, and he does it masterfully. For example, Lady Mary could be seen as cold and calculating at times, an unlikable character, but her interactions with Anna, in particular, as well as Mr. Carson’s POV provide the right amount of balance. Fellowes uses one or both of them to give viewers a new glimpse into Lady Mary in almost every episode, a writing skill that draws us back each week.

The trick is to do it flawlessly, so settle yourself in for a few cycles of rewriting, editing, and polishing, but the end result will be worth your effort.

Secondary characters can be used in a few different ways.

  • The assistant or companion. Batman’s Robin, Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson, and William Crawley’s Mr. Carson are examples.
  • The foil. This character’s purpose is to contrast, and therefore accentuate, the qualities of another character, good vs. bad, weak vs. courageous, corrupt vs. honorable. An example among Downton Abbey characters would be Thomas Barrow, the unlikable, scheming under-butler vs. honest, trustworthy Mr. Bates. Mostly, I wish Thomas would go away, but Fellowes surprises us with a twist. Thomas reveals a hidden caring for the family by crying, alone, over the death of Lady Sybil, and suddenly we’re curious to tune back in next time—or in reference to authors, to keep turning the pages, to learn more.
  • The roadblock. This secondary character isn’t an adversary but stands in the way of progress that the protagonist desires. The way the protagonist responds to this character reveals something about him or her. A recent Downton Abbey example is Violet’s opposition to the hospital expansion that Isobel and Lady Cora want to see happen. Cora and her mother-in-law often don’t see eye-to-eye, and we’ve observed both of them using devious tactics to win their way over the other one in the past. But this season we see growth in Cora, who didn’t manipulate the desired decision and then showed genuine concern for Violet’s feelings.
  • The antagonist. This secondary character is in direct opposition to the main character and whose purpose is to bring about change and growth in the main character. Famous antagonists, or villains, are Sauron, who fights against main characters Frodo and Samwise in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the White Witch, who attacks the lion, Aslan, for protecting the children in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Who are your favorite secondary characters in Downton Abbey or a novel you enjoyed recently, and why? How did the writer use them to reveal inner conflicts, qualities, or the main goal of the main character? How are you using one of these types of secondary characters in your story? How can you use a secondary character in your novel to reveal something new about your main character a little at a time? This could be a fascinating discussion.

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