So, being as I am currently “resting” the first draft of Song – an odd practice wherein the writer triumphantly types “THE END”, triumphantly does a shot or two of something 80 proof, and then anticlimactically spends X amount of days trying her utmost to completely ignore her brainchild while it screams for attention – being as I am currently in the last few days of this anything-but-restful phase, I read a book.
I know. Don’t all fall out of your chairs at once, now.
Not a new book: I have yet to fulfil my previously posted pledge, but that will happen this weekend, I promise. I reread an old favorite – dog-eared, worn, slightly warped from being dropped and hastily retrieved from the tub, missing a page or two where the dog mauled it in an attempt to express her dissatisfaction with my having left her alone in the house. That kind of book, the old friend type.
Yes, I know that was a cliche, and no, I’m not apologizing for it. It’s Friday.
Reading this particular book – Fortress of Dragons if anyone’s interested – brought back all the wonderful breathless angst of early college years, that being when I read it. I read the first of the series somewhere around 16, and immediately got attached to one of the secondary characters, a thing which I occasionally did, and occasionally do still. And it almost always is the secondary characters for me. Reading the wrap-up of Platonic and Terse Manly-Type Relationship between MC #2 and this particular secondary character – which, by the by, is one of the most succinct and beautifully written wrap-ups I’ve run across in a good 20+ years of reading fiction, so you should check it out if you haven’t read this series – I still got that embarrassing have-to-heave-a-sigh-and-pause thing – you know that thing – and I, well, sighed and paused. And I don’t do that often. Really.
But it got me thinking about side men, those unsung heroes and heroines of the novel who often drive a scene, jump-start a plot, and generally get to have the most hilarious snappy comebacks. Major secondary characters who rarely if ever end up in the spotlight, but who manage to be in a good 2/3 of the book nonetheless. There are several in my own novels, in varying shades of detail and purpose, and I have no doubt that without them my MCs, driven and determined though they may all be, would wander in aimless circles until the plot threw up hands in disgust and went off to find some vehicles that worked past 2nd gear. (and I promise never, ever to use another automotive metaphor, please don’t leave.) Side men are pastels to your MC’s glaring neon, meant to complement and/or to clash with, but never to take center stage for more than a few moments.
And yet it’s almost always those characters I got/get hooked on, perhaps because they are painted with a broad (or pastel, if you’re counting metaphors) brush, and when that’s done well, it leaves great big, strangely unobtrusive holes for your brain to fill with whatever attractive thing your brain feels like putting there, and (again, if done well) leaves you wanting more. Your MC should work this way too sometimes, but very rarely and minimally, IMO: MCs can’t be too mysterious or we don’t trust them. We don’t have to trust the side man: she’s the pithy go-to gal with a questionable motive, he’s the cranky old scholar who pins down all the whys and wheres but never explains his how he learned to pick locks. Supporting cast, without which there is no play, because your MC would spend two hours on an anguished monologue about his unloving father if Joe the Bartender weren’t there to tell him to quit whining and pick up his dry cleaning.
So (recovering from that painful monologue I just delivered) – I like side men. I even came up with a list of my favorites:
Idrys, from the Fortress series (C.J. Cherryh) definitely tops the list. Dark in habit and motive, wicked with the witty remarks, quietly and inexplicably loyal, but you’re never sure where the line is with him. Yum.
Dubhain, from Faery in Shadow, also C.J. Cherryh. Also dark (there’s a theme happening here, can you tell?), unpredictable, wild and often cruel, and with a strange fondness for one irritable and unlucky human.
Constantine, from Sunlight by Robin McKinley – socially awkward vampire who makes no apologies for what he is…but thinks his kind could be, well, a little less mean. Also yum. And Mel, from the same book, Zen biker & chef extraordinaire.
Dodicimi, in Rita Ciresi’s Pink Slip – such a sweetheart of a wild boy.
Sofia, from Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow and Children of God – she was a pretty prominent secondary character that got the limelight more than once, but a side man is what she was, and she was such a wonderfully conflicted one.
Ok, I’ll stop there; mostly because I’m looking over my bookshelves to inspire new items for this list and now I want to re-read about 3 books.