Today I’m in London, visiting Jilly, and we will go (or have gone) to Highgate Cemetery, a place I’ve always wanted to see. George Eliot is buried here, as well as Christina Rossetti, Radclyffe Hall, Douglas Adams (author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Karl Marx, George Michael, and 170,000 other famous and not-so-famous people.
I’ll be gone for more than three weeks—after I leave here, I go to Italy where I’ll meet up with another friend in Bologna and then take a bus trip around the country. I’m looking forward to it all—brainstorming with Jilly in addition to doing fun stuff—and then seeing the high spots of Italy, a country I’ve never been to.
I think travel is good for people. It puts you in different and sometimes complex situations that challenge you to see events, places, and people in new ways. It can stimulate your thinking and creativity. And it’s fun.
Donald Maass, a literary agent, has a post up about his latest travels. He and his family and dog are driving New York to Seattle and back. They’ve been on the road for six weeks so far, not done yet, and he talks about the places and food, but most of all, the people they’ve encountered—the scary bikers who turned out to be on a charity ride, the waitress who talked to his kids about adoption. It’s the people you meet, he says, who make the trip something to remember.
It’s the same for journey novels, from Gulliver’s Travels to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Lord of the Rings. What makes those books stand out are the characters the protagonists encounter along the way. Maass says these secondary characters can be broken into three categories:
- Allies and fellow travelers
Allies and fellow travelers support the protagonist and represent different facets of him or her. Enemies represent what is evil or wrong with the world. Locals reflect different dimensions of humanity—good, bad, and in-between. Every character represents something.
Consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck flees his violent and drunk father and his oppressive guardian. His main companion on his raft journey down the Mississippi River is the runaway slave Jim. Huck longs to be free. Jim is the outward representation of that. As they travel, escaping their oppressors, they meet a woman who tests Huck, a feuding family, two grifters who claim to be royal, Tom Sawyer, and many more. In some ways, Huck and Jim’s journey seems over the top, but Mark Twain needed all those strong secondary characters to show the hilarity and hypocrisy of humanity. And the book is still memorable today because of them.
Sharp and insightful secondary characters are critical for any book, not just journey novels. If you think your secondary characters are too blah, Maass has some prompts that could help you sharpen them:
- Who are your protagonist’s friends, allies, and supporters? Name one quality each has that your protagonist lacks. Create one moment that demonstrates that good quality.
- Who works against your protagonist? How does each antagonistic character manifest the worst of human nature? What is the justifying philosophy of each? What is the worst thing that each can do to your protagonist?
- List the secondary characters your protagonist encounters in your novel’s middle. What would each represent or tell us about human nature if your name was Dante, Orwell, Tolkien, or Grimm? Find one way to grow that symbolic meaning.
I’m not planning to read any journey novels while I’m traveling, but you never know what I’ll find. Do you have any favorites? Or are you writing a journey novel? How are you using secondary characters in your own book?