In the industry, these characters are called “secondary.” Hmph, I say. Secondary to what? To the romance? I’ll agree with that, but not with the idea that they are secondary to the action or the nature of the novel.
Let’s face it: Straight romance doesn’t have a ton of surprises to offer us. It can be well written or badly written, sweet or erotic, cozy or adventurous, but there’s rarely a question of whether it will end happily. It will end happily. That’s the point.
So how do we set one romance novel apart from the others? I would argue that the best books on the market today are the ones where the secondary (and tertiary!) characters are as real and engaging as the hero and heroine.
I thought I would make a list of authors (and/or series) that I love because of the secondary characters:
Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton books
I wonder if this series (beginning with The Duke and I) would be nearly so fun without the initially-unseen-except-for-chapter-headings gossip queen Lady Whistledown. Or, I ask you, without the other seven siblings mucking things up (or solving things) for whichever Bridgerton is the present protagonist? One of my favorite Bridgerton scenes has almost nothing to do with “romance,” and everything to do with how the heroine fits in with the hero’s family. In this scene, Kate has been invited to play croquet (or Pall Mall), and they’re setting up the course in the hero (Anthony’s) absence:
"Let me take half of those,” Daphne said, reaching for the wickets in her brother’s hand. “Miss Sheffield and I … that is, Kate and I”—she flashed Kate a friendly grin—“will set up three of them and you and Simon can do the rest.”
Before Kate could even venture an opinion, Daphne had taken her by the arm and was leading her toward the lake.
“We have to make absolutely certain that Anthony loses his ball in the water,” Daphne muttered. “I have never forgiven him for last time. I thought Benedict and Colin were going to die laughing. And Anthony was the worst. He just stood there smirking. Smirking!” She turned to Kate with a most beleaguered expression. “No one smirks quite like my eldest brother.”
“I know,” Kate muttered under her breath.
Thankfully, the duchess hadn’t heard her. “If I could have killed him, I vow I would have.”
“What will happen once all your balls are lost in the lake?” Kate couldn’t resist asking. “I haven’t played with you lot yet, but you do seem rather competitive, and it seems …”
“That it would be inevitable?” Daphne finished for her. She grinned. “You’re probably right. We have no sense of sportsmanship when it comes to Pall Mall. When a Bridgerton picks up a mallet, we become the worst sorts of cheaters and liars. Truly, the game is less about winning than making sure the other players lose. … It seems a waste, I know, but worth it to humiliate my brothers.”
Jennifer Crusie’s anything
I’ve often sold my friends on Jennifer Crusie’s books by telling them that they will never laugh as hard reading any other romance novel. She’s funny and the wit is sly, and a lot of it has to do with secondary characters acting as the voices of reason.
Let’s face it: The early stages of love make us all behave like idiots, and it’s only right that the love portrayed in romance novels should occasionally turn our heroes and heroines into idiots, too. And, to complete the cycle, that they have friends and families that will happily – gleefully, even – point it out.
Another thing to love about Crusie is that a lot of the tension in her romances comes from her couples having to deal with the insane vagaries of everyday life. They’re not so much beset by pirate ships and spy rings as they are plagued by families whose every-family-has-one craziness is magnified. Also? She’s not afraid to put a funny line in a woman’s mouth, and that’s a quality much to be prized. (Don’t you get sick of men being the only ones who are allowed to be overtly comic?)
Favorite Crusie book has got to be the utterly priceless Bet Me, although you honestly can’t go wrong with anything she writes, and you’ll definitely fall in love with her books co-written with Bob Mayer, and her books about the Dempsey family, starting with Welcome to Temptation.
Nora Roberts’ The Quinn Legacy
This is the story of three (well, four) adopted brothers who are dealing with their father’s death and the ongoing fight to keep custody of the fourth, significantly younger, brother. That tension and trouble runs throughout the first three books and it’s simply lovely.
As is usual for Roberts’s series, there are three basic “types”: The glamorous jetsetter sibling, the sensible, type-A sibling, and the salt-of-the-earth, quietly deep sibling. I think she does better cast development with the Quinns than with any other series; the brothers (all of whom end up with their own books) are nuanced and rude to each other and messy and imperfect in ways that are true to their typical Roberts archetype.
I’d argue that the secondary characters are fewer and shallower with Roberts than with other writers, but she’s one of the queens of the genre and this is her best work (imho), so I thought I should include it.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ football and golf books
Whaaa? Football and golf?
Football. And. Golf. Take it as an article of faith that anyone who loves character-driven, secondary-character packed romance will adore any SEP book that includes a pro athlete. (Which means football or golf; she hasn’t yet ventured into luge or pro wrestling, which would strain my faith as a reader.)
As I write this post, I’m discovering something interesting: I get really engaged in books that show the heroes (in particular) in a range of emotionally complicated situations (but that’s probably another blog post). SEP definitely deals those out, with difficult families, tenuous relationships, trust issues … you name it.
Perhaps my favorite SEP example is … hmph. It’s tough to isolate one, but I think it’s got to be Heaven, Texas, in which an entire town plays a role as a secondary character. There’s also the hero’s fantastic, widowed mother and the entire staff of the Curl Up and Dye hair salon. Gracie Snow (the heroine) ends up having to contend with all kinds of issues related to Bobby Tom Denton’s status as favorite son, and that means SEP got to really play around with the secondary characters and how they throw roadblocks in the path of, you know, True Love.
So, there you have it. My top picks for relational romances. Other authors who deserve a mention (but haven’t published anything that’s rung my bell in a while): Judith McNaught (try Perfect, a contemporary with one of my all-time favorite heroines) and Julie Garwood (The Secret should start you off well if you like historicals set in Scotland – or even if you don’t).
And, because I am on a serious fantasy and vampire kick right now, when I’m talking about relational, uh, quasi-romance, I simply must recommend all of Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld books (start with Bitten).
Finally, for fantasy books with great loving relationships and romance that’s stretched across a trilogy, Patricia Briggs’ Mercedes Thompson books (starting with Moon Called) and Anne Bishop’s Dark Jewels trilogy (my absolute favorite comfort books ever, starting with Daughter of the Blood) are must-reads, but be warned: They have some seriously dark themes and very graphic violence.