You'd be right.
It's SO hard.
Authors work on novels for a year or two before they're published so those characters we develop start to feel like family. Picking a favorite just isn't possible. I'm incredibly proud of Dan Ellison, the former bully in SEND and of Derek Lawrence in SOMEONE I USED TO KNOW, because I think they did the most growing up, the most changing, of all of my characters. But I'm equally proud of Grace Collier and Ashley Lawrence, sexual assault survivors in SOME BOYS and SOMEONE I USED TO KNOW, because they fought so hard to challenge assumptions in their respective stories.
Don't even get me started on Jin-Thomas Clarke, the Pulitzer-Prize-Winning journalist in BORDERLINES, a still unpublished novel of mine that launched a decade-long crush I've had on actor Gilles Marini. (Want the steamy details? Click here.)
Main characters already know they're pretty damn special; they got their own books. You know who never gets any love?
The secondary character!
So I've decided to tell you a little bit about my favorite supporting characters.
First up, we have Mr. Russell, Ian's dad in SOME BOYS. Main character Grace may not be what some consider to be a 'nice girl.' She wears a lot of leather and studs, black clothes, heavy makeup. It's an outfit she adopted as something of a protest to annoy her father.
It works. Perhaps a little too well. Because after Grace's assault, he doesn't give her the comfort and the reassurance she so desperately needs. He suggests the crime committed against her may be her fault because of how she dresses.
You know who does provide comfort? Mr. Russell, main character Ian's father. He not only believes Grace, he steps up, advocates for Grace when no one else would. I adore that character. Here's an excerpt from SOME BOYS where Mr. Russell does what should be done.
I knock on the door to the second property Mr. Russell wants me to shoot.
The door's answered by a guy named Don Harding, a short, thinks-he's-a-player guy wearing a t-shirt that's too tight to be anything but sad. He looks me up and down, smirks a Zac kind of smirk and invites me in. In my head, warning bells sound, sirens wail, and forces are mobilizing for a full scale attack. Don The Homeowner looks at me like I'm nuts while I try to convince myself this is safe but it's not safe and I know it, he knows it and he's daring me to do it anyway.
"You live here alone?"
"My wife won't be home for a while yet, sweet thing. You could come in for a while." Another smirk. Yeah, this is definitely not a good idea.
"When's your wife home?"
"Six-thirty or so."
"I'll come back then, Mr. Harding."
"Call me Don, honey."
How about no? "I'll come back." With a bodyguard and maybe a weapon.
I head down the walk, so happy not to be trapped in a room with this creep.
"Aw, come on. We're both here now. Why you gotta be like this?"
Me? — Oh, you douche. I whip around, not surprised to find that he followed me down the walk. "You wanna know why I have to be like this? Because you're a slimy asshole, that's why. I came here to do a job but you have to act like a dick and then say it's me. It's my fault. It's my problem."
He holds up his hands in surrender. "Jeez, I was just—"
"Oh, you were just what? Playing around?" I wave my hands. "Oh, oh, you were joking and didn't mean anything? Newsflash, Don, I don't find guys like you even a little bit funny. I'm here to take pictures of your new kitchen. Period. I'll come back when your wife is home so pray I don't tell her what you tried to do." To add more weight to my bluff, I whip my phone out of my pocket and wiggle it in front of his face.
I turn to leave.
"Aw, baby, come on—"
I flip directions, stride right up to him so that we're standing toe to toe, and grab a fistful of his t-shirt. "My name isn't honey, or baby, or sweet thing. I am not here to amuse you until your wife gets home. Last chance — are you gonna get out of my way or do I have to mess you up?"
"Okay! Okay! You on your period or something?"
My vision tunnels and I want to tie this guy's tongue in a knot. Before I can do something I'll have to be bailed out for, I turn on my heel and leave. Don Harding's new kitchen is not going to make it into Mr. Russell's new brochures and I really don't give a shit.
When I reach the corner, it hits me I'm not scared anymore. Guess I'm too mad to be scared. I call Mr. Russell, tell him word for word what just happened, and apologize.
"Grace, what did Ian do when Mr. Harding got fresh with you?"
"Oh, he's not here."
Crap. I think I just got Ian in big trouble. "He got a ride home from one of his friends. I decided to visit the properties near the school after he left."
"Mr. Russell, please. It's not his fault, really. Zac was causing trouble, so Ian got him away from me."
"Well, that's something. Where are you now?"
"Um, walking to the Miller's house up on College Drive."
"I'll meet you there."
He ends the call before I can protest. It takes no more than ten minutes to find the third address on Mr. Russell's list. When I turn up the walk and knock on the door, the homeowner holds up his finger. "Yeah, she's here right now. Okay. Bye."
"Are you Grace?"
"Come on in. That was Steve Russell on the phone."
I hesitate. "Are you Mr. Miller?" The man is tall, with a ton of gray hair streaking the sides of his head. He's wearing a pair of wire-rim glasses and has a tiny gut hanging over the waistline of his Dockers. When he smiles, he seems friendly, not slimy.
"Yeah, Brett Miller. My wife is outside with our kids." He holds out a hand to me but I still hesitate. After a moment, he lowers his hand and loses his smile. "Grace, Steve told me what just happened."
I shut my eyes with a groan.
"It's okay. Why don't you walk around the house to the yard and I'll stay in the kitchen, okay?"
I look at him sideways. "Really?"
"Really." He grins again.
I nod and walk around the house. Mrs. Miller is pushing a toddler on a swing set. An older boy is running around with a soccer ball. A door slides open and Mr. Miller calls out. Mrs. Miller picks up the baby and heads indoors. A few minutes later, the little boy follows. The yard is like a park with tons of perfectly clipped grass and curvy flower beds. Mr. Russell designed custom tile that resemble scales for a large fish at the bottom of the pool. The sun's at the perfect angle to show off those colors. There's something about framing the perfect shot, something soothing, maybe even cathartic. It's like your whole world gets reduced to just light and shadow, to whatever fits in the viewfinder. Mr. Russell does beautiful work. The pictures I'm taking will make people want to touch this fish, see if those scales are real.
With a happy sigh, I carefully pack the camera away and turn to wave at the Millers, watching from their kitchen. I wind my way around the house and find Mr. Russell leaning against the white Camry. "How'd it go?"
"Mr. Russell? What are you doing here?"
"Making sure nobody else gives you any trouble."
I blink. My dad told me the same thing once. It was after my first day of kindergarten. I walked out of the huge steel doors and found him leaning against our car. I ran over to him and he scooped me up into his arms and asked me if anybody was mean to me. Nobody was until a few weeks later when a little witch named Samantha got me sent to the principal's office. Strange how after Zac assaults me and everybody's mean to me, now his response is "What do you expect me to do when you—"
He never finishes that sentence. I guess he didn't really need to.
I swallow hard. "Thanks, Mr. Russell. Really."
"So, can I see what you've got so far?"
"Yeah. Sure." I unpack the camera, switch to scroll and hand it to him.
"Grace, these are amazing. Thank you so much. Wait, what's this?"
I snatch the camera from him when he scrolls too far and sees one of the Zac shots I'd taken. "Nothing. I should go. It's getting dark."
"I'll drop you off."
"No! I can walk."
Mr. Russell's eyes, so much like Ian's, go hot for a moment. Then he sighs. "Grace, I know you don't know me, but I promise you this — you're safe with me. I am so, so sorry about what happened to you."
My throat closes and I nod once, then take off. He drives slowly behind me as I walk all the way home. I hate that he knows what happened. I hate that he thinks I'm afraid of him, that I can't handle myself.
I hate that he's right.
Another favorite secondary character of mine is Etta in THE WAY IT HURTS. Etta is main character Kristen Cartwright's grandmother. She's this larger-than-life former stage actress who coaches Kristen through a seriously humiliating event with a "don't get mad, get even" philosophy. Etta has a string of ex-husbands who all still adore her and are still part of her extended family. She knows what she wants and doesn't just expect it; she demands it in ways that have people tripping over themselves to provide it. Etta has a health crisis in this novel and it's Kristen who propels Etta out of her hospital bed in a gratifying role reversal.
Last month, our theme was secrets in our novels. Here's a secret for you: I adore writing secondary characters' relationships with main characters. I love revealing different aspects to love, to grief, to disappointment, to pride. These supporting characters reveal those aspects to perfection. Here's a scene from THE WAY IT HURTS starring Etta.
"How could he do that, Etta?" I sobbed.
"Hush, darling, hush." She stroked my hair. "Are you absolutely certain he -- what is it again?"
"Twitter. And yes. I am. He posted a picture of me." I lifted my head from her shoulder and curled my legs under me. Etta handed me the box of tissues from the table beside the sofa, where a framed photo of Etta and Dad sat. I blew my nose loudly and sniffled a few times. "I thought he liked me, Etta. Really liked me."
"He does, darling. I saw the boy's face and I'm an excellent judge of character, remember?"
Despite the knife twisting deep in my soul, I laughed. I couldn't help it. Etta could always make me laugh no matter how crappy I felt. That was why I came straight here, instead of running up to my room and hiding under the covers. "Maybe he's just a good actor."
Etta raised both eyebrows over her tea cup at that. "Nobody's that good, darling." She studied me for a long moment. She wasn't fully dressed today -- no red lips or outlandish eye makeup, but she still looked amazing to me. "Come with me. I have just the thing to cheer you up."
I followed her into the kitchen -- a tiny room at the back of the apartment my parents built for her. The apartment was just large enough for Etta's acting souvenirs and her. She had a tiny sofa, a flat screen TV on the wall. Every spot of wall space boasted autographed pictures of Etta and her leading men, or Playbills, or reviews of her performances -- the good ones, that is. Knowing Etta as well as he did, Dad provided only a basic kitchen. Etta didn't cook. Not even a little. Her refrigerator held leftovers from the meals Mom cooked or the meals Etta ordered in. I watched while she opened the door to the tiny fridge, rooted around inside for a moment and surfaced bearing a foil-wrapped package.
"Sit, sit." She waved me over to the small bistro table in the corner. I sat on a high stool while she opened the cabinet in the hall, took out one of her fancy plates, the kind rimmed in gold, and brought it to the counter near the fridge. A moment later, she put it down in front of me.
Six chocolate-covered strawberries circled the plate, on top of a lace doily. Fresh tears choked me. Etta wrapped her arms around me and squeezed. "Oh, hush now. No boy is ever worth your tears, darling. I should know. I married four."
"You never cried over a boy, Etta?"
She pulled out a chair and sat opposite me, studied the plate, and chose a strawberry. She bit into it, closing her eyes with a moan. "Not since I was thirteen years old and Harold Fine decided that Rose DeLuro had nicer...assets... than I did." She looked pointedly at her chest -- noticeably flatter than mine.
I took after Mom's side of the family in that department.
"What about The Four? Didn't you love them?"
She slowly chewed her berry, licked her fingers and shrugged. "I certainly thought I did at the time."
She smiled brightly. "And now I know I am far too self-absorbed to love any man more than I love myself."
"Uh." I blinked. I had no idea how to respond to that. I grabbed a strawberry of my own, took a bite and felt immediately better. "Where did you get these? They're amazing."
"The chocolate shop off Main Street, near the theater. Wonderful, aren't they?"
Wonderful didn't come close.
"If you were a tad bit older, I'd pour you a shot of whiskey in that tea."
I stared at her. "I won't tell if you won't."
She smiled and gave me the nice-try look. "Now then. Tell me from the beginning everything that happened."
So I did. We drank our tea, finished the strawberries, and I told her everything... the band and The Beat and all the crappy insults and put-downs I'd had to deal with just because I posted my opinions.
"And these insults... you're certain they were from Elijah?"
"Um, well, no. Only the one about making me scream. Oh, Etta!" I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. "I really thought he was great. But he's just -- he's just-- "
"A man. The question is, how will you use this information?"
I lifted my head and stared at her through my tears. "I don't know what you mean."
"Kristen, my darling, whether this Elijah is great or not is not the question you should be asking. You now know something about him -- how can that something help you get what you need?"
"I don't know what I need!"
"Of course you do." She repeated with a subtle eye roll. "You were heartbroken about your summer program rejection. What if you created your own summer program? What if you accepted Mr. Hamilton's indecent proposal?" She leaned in closer. "And what if screaming in his rock band is just the sort of unexpected something extra that you need on your conservatory applications?"
I rocked back in my seat. Could I do that? Could I hide the crack in my heart and pretend this is just my next role? Yeah. Yeah, I decided, I could. "I guess I could call him."
Etta gasped. "Oh, no, you will not. You will wait for young Mr. Hamilton to come to you, begging. When he does, and he will, you'll agree to sing in his band and then you will capture all of his fans with one simple technique that has endured through the ages. It's called sexual competition, darling."
I choked and then quickly looked around to make sure Mom and Dad hadn't possibly heard that.
Etta patted my back. "It's not what you think," she said, waving a hand. "The concept is quite simple, really. Despite it being the twenty-first century and all, it's just that people -- especially men, cannot believe women can do anything as well or heaven forbid, better than they can. You turn this into a competition like that and people who don't even like this sort of music will fill seats just to see who wins."
My eyes widened. If I did this, I could really give Elijah Hamilton's fans something to talk about -- and maybe, with a little luck, that something might involve revenge of all sorts of unspeakable agony.
A slow grin spread across my face. I raised my teacup and Etta clinked it, a matching grin on her face.