Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Secondary Characters: Part VI of a Ten-Part Reflection on Creative Writing

 As someone fascinated by human behavior, writing complex novels rich in characters has always been a feature of my style. Yet character rich novels can all too easily get bogged down in a plethora of sub-plots, and too much detail about secondary characters can detract from the effectiveness of the novel. So over the years, I've tried to become more economical in my treatment of peripheral characters, i.e. those not at the center of the novel. In doing so, I've found it useful to think of characters fitting into a pyramid with the main protagonist(s) at the pinnacle, and the "cast of thousands" at the bottom. Below is a short description of how I try (not always successfully!) to handle these various categories of supporting characters and some examples from my writing.


I define these as the characters who have no role in the development of the character, the advancement of the plot or the illumination of the theme. Such characters should not be particularly nuanced or complex. 

For example: the hero of Traitors for the Sake of Humanitylives is in an apartment house with a concierge. This man is more a prop than a character. Yes, he has one brilliant line at the end of the book, but he doesn’t need to be nuanced or multifaceted. In many cases even giving these characters a name is unnecessary — unless they need to be addressed directly by the other characters.


Just a step above the cast of thousands are characters that do in some way impact the plot, character or theme, but only in a single episode or encounter. Nevertheless, such a character needs to be more than a prop. He/She is not interchangeable. She/he must be precisely drawn and carefully defined. Although we see only a “snapshot” of these characters and need not know what they do, think, or feel in other contexts, the image we have of them should nevertheless be sharp. Here are two examples:

Tertiary Characters — Example One: the Cripple from A Stranger in the Mirror

The door was pulled open and Banks was confronted by a frail, middle-aged man sitting in a wheelchair; he had no legs. The man stared back at him in obvious shock. Then he said, “You must be Ginger's friend that Bowles has been going on about for months. Kept telling everyone—whether they wanted to hear it or not — that some fine gent was coming to stay with him. Rich man’s son, he said.” His tone and expression were sneering.

“Yes, that’s right.” Banks kept his tone neutral and polite. “Ginger and I served together in the same squadron.”

“Hmphf! Didn’t believe Bowles. Thought he was making it all up.” The man admitted. His eyes were riveted on Banks’ face. “Huns did that to you, did they?”

“Flames from my engine did it to me,” Banks corrected.

The man’s eyes narrowed a little before he declared, pounding his fist on the arm of the wheelchair, “The Huns did this to me! Somme, November ’16.”

Banks heard the bitterness in his voice, but he knew the price Germany had paid too. His mother had lost two of her brothers. Their housekeeper in Hamburg had lost four sons. His nanny had lost her fiancé. Before the churches of every town the legless beggars clustered, and the graveyards of even the tiniest village marked the slaughter of a generation. He said simply, “I’m sorry.”

“Everybody’s sorry!” The legless man snapped back. “A lot of good that does me. Doesn’t give me back my legs or my life, does it? Did you bag the bastard that hit you, at least?”

“I didn’t even see him,” Banks admitted.

“Got plenty of others first though, I hope? I certainly did.”

“Good for you,” Banks uttered without feeling. He was still picturing the faded photographs on the endless tombstones in his mind.

The legless man’s eyes narrowed again. “You’re an odd bugger — just like Bowles and his kid.” With a contemptuous gesture he concluded, “If you want to get back to the dump Bowles lives in, just go down there,” he pointed to the right “about a quarter of a mile you’ll come to a crossroads. Turn left there and keep walking.”

“Thank you,” Banks said politely and walked away.

He had been cold before he rang the bell, but the encounter with the cripple chilled him to the bone. He didn’t want to end up like that. Embittered, hopeless, living on hate.

Tertiary Characters — Example Two: Maggie from Lack of Moral Fibre:

As they settled onto the couch to sip their drinks, Maggie remarked, “I haven’t seen much of Fiona recently. Aren’t you seeing each other anymore?”

“Oh, we still try to meet up now and again, but it isn’t as easy since I was posted to Training Command. Don’s hoping to get us posted back to 626 Squadron, however. If so, we would be close to Lincoln again.”

“Are you serious about this second tour?” Maggie asked as if she couldn’t believe him.

“Yes, of course.”

“Why?” Maggie asked bluntly. Then before he could open his mouth to say anything, she demanded in an aggressive tone. “Don’t you ever think about what you’re doing? I mean, dropping tons of high explosives on people’s heads.”

Kit was taken aback by her attitude and the vehemence with which she spoke. He knew she would not have dared ask such a question in her father’s presence, and he suspected she had not subjected Don to her outrage over bombing either. He was the target of her anger because she didn’t particularly care what he thought of her. He tried to answer calmly. “We target military installations and war industries, things like aircraft and tank factories, U-boat pens, synthetic petroleum and rubber plants, steel mills and ammunition depots.”

“Yes, and what about all the workers at those plants that just happen to be in the way?” Maggie added.

“We bomb at night.”

“How civilized! So, you kill people in their beds rather than while they’re standing up at the assembly line.”

“At least we aren’t targeting cultural monuments like the Nazis did.”

“Ah, yes, the Baedeker Raids, a justification for lowering ourselves to Hitler’s level,” she retorted sarcastically.

“We’re not intentionally targeting the civilian population.”

“Tell that to the people of Hamburg!”

“Look, Maggie, I don’t think there’s anything pretty about a firestorm. I’ve seen what London looks like, and Coventry too. I know what bombs can do, but we don’t exactly have many alternatives, do we? We can’t defeat a continental power like Germany with our Navy. Our army was expelled from the continent in just six weeks after the Wehrmacht struck and is now helpless — unless you count a sideshow like North Africa. A bombing offensive is all we have. Aerial bombardment is a dull weapon. It’s not precise. There is collateral damage. There are civilian casualties. I know. But it also happens to be the only weapon we have that can hit Germany at this moment. What would you have us do? Just sit back and let Hitler have his way on the Continent?”

“Frankly, I don’t know,” Maggie retorted belligerently, “and I don’t think it is my job to know either! What I do think is that our leaders ought to have been cleverer than to get us into this mess in the first place!”

“You’re probably right,” Kit conceded, conscious that he was getting angry despite his best intentions not to, “but it’s a little too late now! We’ve got this ruddy war, and we’ve got to find a way of ending it to our advantage.”

“I don’t see what’s wrong with letting the Russians and Americans do the fighting. They have more resources.”

“If you think you’d like the world that emerges from a Soviet victory, I think you’re deluding yourself.”

“We’ll still have our Empire and America to keep the Soviets in check,” Maggie countered. “That’s the whole point, really. Let the Soviets and Nazis fight it out amongst themselves until they’re both exhausted and bankrupt. Then we can pick up the pieces and rebuild the continent in a way that will keep both Russia and Germany down.”

Kit didn’t have an answer for that. He was an engineer, not a politician. So, he opted out of the discussion altogether. “I don’t think either of us is going to be forging British policy any time soon, so I think I’ll just have another drink. What about you?”

“Oh, yes, please!” She held out her glass with a sweet smile that implicitly asked his forgiveness for her remarks. She was a lovely girl in her own way, and Kit wondered vaguely why he wasn’t attracted to her. Maybe because he feared that he’d lose the Selkirks’ goodwill if they thought he had his eye on their daughter. They liked him well enough — but not as a son-in-law. His tainted bloodlines would never pass muster.

He brought Maggie her refill. She had kicked off her shoes and curled her feet under herself on the sofa. She looked up at him with wide eyes as he handed her her drink.

“You know, Kit,” she started in a gentle, reconciliatory tone, “I’d like you so much better if you didn’t do what everyone expected of you.”

“What do you mean?” He was genuinely puzzled.

“I mean, this volunteering for a Second Tour. It’s so, you know, ‘good form’ and ‘doing one’s bit,’ isn’t it?”

“Is that the way you see it? That I’m just a useful idiot doing what’s expected of me?”

“I wouldn’t have put it that rudely, but, be frank, aren’t you doing this just because it’s expected of you? I mean, if you’re brutally honest with yourself, isn’t this more about proving something to your fellow officers and society at large? Isn’t it, deep down, about living up to other people’s expectations rather than acting on your own convictions?” Her eyes bored into him, demanding honesty, but they were not hostile eyes. To his surprise, he felt a surprising warmth in them, as though she genuinely cared.

“Well, since you put it like that, I suppose you’re right. I am trying to live up to expectations, but not those of the RAF or the general public.”

“Whose then?” Maggie asked confused.

“I volunteered for a Second Tour because your brother asked me to.”



Secondary or Supporting Characters, in contrast, are characters that live alongside the protagonists, interacting with them more than once and, presumably, in a variety of ways. For me, these secondary characters need to be as complex and nuanced as the main character — at least in my mind. My secondary characters are some of my favorite characters — maybe that’s the reason I have ended up writing entire books (A Stranger in the Mirror, A Rose in November) about some of them!

Secondary Characters - Example One: Haakon Magnusen from Envoy of Jerusalem

Magnussen’s crew was efficiently making “Storm Bird” secure, putting a harbor stow in the sail, coiling the ends of the running rigging, and fastening the covers over the hatches. There was a lot of work to be done to repair the damage to the starboard rail, to replace lost oars and their shattered tender. They needed to pump out the bilges and measure the rate she was taking on water, then search for damage to the hull. They had to clean and scrub and get her ship-shape again. But not now, not tonight. Tonight, every man-jack of them, except the watch, of course, needed shore leave.

Magnussen turned to his mate, Eric Andersen. “Have you set the watch?”

“I’m taking the first watch myself, Haakon. Go ashore.”

Part of him thought he ought to refuse, thought he ought to be the responsible captain, but today he felt a burning need to get drunk. So drunk that he had neither memories nor dreams anymore. “I owe you one,” he remarked to his mate and then swung himself over the side of his ship and onto the quay with a single, easy leap.

His mood was such that he shied away from the dockside taverns, where he could expect to encounter most of his crewmen. Today, tonight, he wanted anonymity. He wanted to be among strangers, men who did not know his past, men who did not even know his reputation. He moved deeper into the town, consciously ducking into the side alleys, avoiding the main thoroughfares, the wider streets with the more respectable establishments behind proud façades of stone. The mud and wattle buildings crushed behind and between the stone buildings were better harbors on a night like this.

He put his nose into one or two such places, but they were too empty as yet. It was early for drinking oneself to oblivion. Annoyed, he looked around, not knowing what he was looking for, and spotted a pack of youths careening around the corner and starting toward him. They were excited, shouting to one another, laughing even as they ran, but in a sinister way. The leader of the pack was clutching something to his belly, and Magnussen was pretty damned sure that whatever it was, it wasn’t his.

On an impulse, he stuck out his leg to try to trip up the little thief, but the youth was agile. He managed to half-leap, half-shy away from the foot, and shouting crude insults, he kept going with his friends in his wake. One of the boys, trailing the others, was carrying a pair of crutches. Not that he needed them. He was fleet on his feet. He held the crutches over his head like a trophy. “Little piss-pots!” Magnussen thought to himself. “They’ve robbed a cripple!” For a second he was torn between the impulse to chase after them, and the instinct to go to the assistance of the victim. Although there were a half dozen youths, he didn’t doubt his ability to take them all on. But he also judged that if he did, blood would flow, and—thieves or not—they were too young to die.

He hurried instead to the corner and looked in the direction from which the pack of thieves had come.

Collapsed in the gutter, sobbing, was a little bundle of misery. Magnussen started forward briskly and halfway there recognized the crippled son of Godwin Olafsen. He covered the remaining distance in half a second. “Sven! Sven! What are you doing in this part of town? What happened? Blessed Mother Mary!” The boy’s face was bruised, his nose streaming blood, and the palms of his hands were torn open. Magnussen guessed that the thieves had knocked or yanked his crutches away, tumbling him onto the rough cobbles. Once he was down, they’d probably kicked him a couple of times in the gut and face, and when he was “softened up” they’d robbed him.

“They—they took—everything,” Sven wailed, confirming Magnussen’s suspicions.

“What did you have with you?” Magnussen asked, wondering about chasing after the thieves after all, though by now they could have disappeared into some cellar.

“Everything!” Sven insisted, sobbing for breath and crying.

“Come, let me get you back home.”

“NO!” Sven screamed.

Magnussen stared at him uncomprehending. “I’m not going back! Never! I hate them!”

This made no sense at all to Magnussen. He would have given—well, not his health, but just about anything else to have had parents like Sven’s. His own father would have been more likely to leave a crippled son for the wolves than look after him the way Godwin had. Christian charity was only skin deep in men like Magnus Haakonssen, Haakon’s father. Magnussen was in no mood to discuss things in the street, however. It was getting dark and the gutter was foul with waste and sewage.

“I’ll take you to the orphanage, then,” he announced simply. Then he bent and heaved the cripple into his arms. Sven was no longer all skin and bones, but he was still great burden for the Norse captain.

Secondary Characters — Example Two: Colin and Mickey from Where Eagles Never Flew

Despite the hour of the night, Colin decided to see if 606’s adjutant was about. Not entirely to his surprise, he found that Mickey was indeed still in his office.

Mickey looked up startled at the knock on his door, but he waved Colin in when he recognised him. “Isn’t it frightful?” he asked before Colin even got a word out. “The MO says he doesn’t stand much of a chance of ever walking again. Such an experienced man, too! He was one of Trenchard’s brats, you know, and he’s been with the squadron practically since it was formed. I can’t get over it: a fitter who’s been doing this work for years just steps backwards into thin air and falls straight onto the concrete.” Mickey shook his head again to emphasize his disbelief.

“Have you notified his family?”

“I’ve been trying, but I can’t seem to get through. Trunk lines appear to be completely over-loaded – that or Jerry got something during the day. All I get is the engaged tone before I even finish dialing!” The exasperation was understandable. The adjutant was tired, too – and all but drowning in the overflowing stacks of paperwork filling the office.

“Do you know about the fiancée?” Colin asked next.

“Yes, it’s here in the file. A certain Dorothy Morley – but I thought I ought to talk to his mother first. Maybe even have the mother break the news to the girlfriend, don’t you think?” The question was not rhetorical. Mickey sincerely wanted advice. He felt terrible and dreaded talking to either woman.

“Yes, if they live close enough, that is.” Colin paused, and then continued. “I also think it would be a good thing if LAC Tufnel was given compassionate leave to go up to Southampton and be with Sanders when they give him the news. They were pretty close, I understand, and his mother and fiancée aren’t likely to get down fast enough.”

Mickey was shaking his head. “Not a chance.”

“Why ever not?” Colin at once sat straighter, and for an instant, the future Earl was very evident; Colin was prepared to fight for this.

Mickey shook his head. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’d give him leave in an instant, but Jones hasn’t signed off on anyone’s leave in weeks. Look, here’s the file!” Mickey knew exactly where everything was despite the appearance of chaos presented to strangers. He had his hand on a manila folder in an instant. “These are all the leave requests submitted to Jones since we came south. The only ones he granted were for Hayworth, Dunsire and Ringwood at the end of June. Apparently, he’d promised it to them before leaving Scotland. But nothing since then. Believe me, I’ve tried to get him to sign off. I used to leave the file on top of his mail every day, but he ticked me off for that! Look! Here are, what,” Mickey counted, “seven requests from various erks – all duly signed off by the Chief – and here – oh, and here’s one from Davis. I suppose I can get rid of that.” He crumpled up the leave request from the dead pilot and tossed it into the wastepaper basket before turning the entire folder over to Colin.

Colin flipped through it and found Sanders’ request form, dated July 19. “But there haven’t been any orders to stop all leave, have there?” Colin asked.

“From the Ministry or Group, you mean? No, not at all. After all, things were comparatively quiet in June and early July. And when you think about it, throughout the last war we continued to have regular leave and rotations. Wars go on for years, and men can’t stay at peak performance continuously. They need rest.”

“They certainly do, and Sanders is going to need at least one familiar and friendly face around him when they give him the news. Surely, in this extreme situation, Jones could make an exception. We’re only talking about Tufnel going up to Southampton for a day or two.”

Mickey was unconsciously wiping imaginary sweat from his brow with his handkerchief. “I couldn’t agree with you more, but I’m not authorised to sign these things on my own. I’ve got to pin Jones down long enough to make him do it, and frankly….” He sighed, defeated.

“How long will it take to get a replacement in?” Colin asked next.

“Oh, that’s already organised. I put in for a fitter immediately after I heard the news, and Personnel said they’ll have someone here by tomorrow morning. In fact,” Mickey again put his hand on what he was looking for, “I’ve got a telegram stating a certain AC Fowley will be reporting to us in the morning. Coming straight down from the School of Technical Training.”

“Doesn’t that mean he’s straight out of training? No experience?” Colin asked, a little alarmed.

“Yes, but, well, they can’t very well steal from other squadrons, can they?”

Colin supposed that was right, but he didn’t like the sound of it. It would be very difficult for a young fitter to start his first job in the middle of the most intense air offensive in history.



“Have you ever heard of Flight Sergeant Rowe punching or hitting the men?”

“Good heavens! That sort of thing isn’t allowed!” Mickey responded shocked.

“I know,” Colin conceded, but then continued, “yet I just witnessed it with my own eyes.”

“Good God! That’s horrible! We can’t afford to put Rowe up on charges in the middle of all this! You aren’t going to make a formal report, are you?”

Colin thought about that answer and considered the look on Mickey’s appalled face, and with a sigh shook his head. “No, I suppose not. Not now. Not this time…. But I don’t think it’s right.” He said good night to Mickey and retreated up to his own room, feeling very dissatisfied with himself. His last thought as he fell asleep was a simple prayer: God, help me.

Find out more about my novels at: http://helenapschrader.com



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