I adore creating secondary characters to populate my books and provide a bit of light relief and added colour. So much so that I have to work extremely hard not to let my cameo roles take centre stage. Time after time, I get carried away with an utterly (to me, at any rate!) fascinating but completely irrelevant butler or blue-stocking aunt, a second cousin twice removed or a roguish inn keeper. Since they stop the pace of the story in its tracks and get bodily in the way of the blossoming romance, I curb my enthusiasm and they nearly all, quite rightly, end up on the cutting room floor.
Sadly, in my early works, my sense of authorly restraint wasn’t so developed. My first two books are littered with a cast of characters, my homage to Georgette Heyer, the queen of the comic extras, but to be honest, mostly they make my toes curl in embarrassment. The Rake and the Heiress has a half-naked blacksmith bare-knuckle boxer called Sam; a devilish, dog-kicking pantomime villain called Jasper and his crony, the stammering Langton; a peeping tom farmer by the name of Jeffries; Tobias Maynard, a verbose lawyer; a simpering dandy of questionable sexuality called Edwin; an extremely unlikely pair of highwaymen called Jake and Ned; an even more unlikely cut-throat called Fingers Harry…
There’s more where that came from, but I’ll stop there, lest it put you off my books forever. Suffice to say that the world of historical romance has changed radically since that book was published.
Usually I confine my secondary character’s moment in the spotlight to one book, but sometimes I give them a second airing. Madame LeClerc, an ambitious modiste hoping to make her fortune bringing French chic to London, made her first appearance in The Rake and the Heiress. I liked her so much that I brought her back to make a very important gown for Henrietta in Rake with a Frozen Heart. And I awarded her another prestigious client in the form of The Procurer, whose story is the last in my Matches Made in Scandal quartet, A Scandalous Winter Wedding (to be released in November this year).
As a writer, what I love most about secondary characters is that you can have fun with them. You can have a dig at historical characters by emphasising their less attractive traits – I confess, I do this regularly with the Duke of Wellington. You can exact harmless revenge on people you’ve loathed in a previous life (you know, the teacher who ridiculed you, the colleague who stabbed you in the back) by turning them into a villain. Or you can create a character that is an amalgam of all the traits and prejudices you loathe.
I did this with Lord Armstrong, patriarch of the Armstrong Sisters series. Henry first made an appearance in Innocent in the Sheikh’s Harem, which was originally intended to be a stand-alone romance. Because I’m the eldest of four sisters, I gave my heroine a similar quota of siblings, never imagining that they’d have a life beyond that one book – but then one became two and the series ended up covering the life stories of all five sisters. Lord Armstrong became more manipulative, more intolerant, misogynistic, domineering and politically ambitious in every story. By the time I’d finished Unwed and Unrepentant, I thought I’d got him out of my system.
I went on to write several more books. Then I embarked on a new series set in an imaginary Arabia. I introduced a continuity character called Christopher Fordyce, a cross between Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia, an endearingly enigmatic and slightly eccentric English gentleman on some sort of personal quest involving an ancient amulet. That is all I knew about him in the first book, The Widow and the Sheikh. He popped up again waving his amulet in Sheikh’s Mail Order Bride, by which time I’d decided he was going to be the hero of the fourth book, and I was getting worried because I had no idea what on earth he was up to, wandering around Arabia with his amulet. When he encounters the hero of The Harlot and the Sheikh I added a touch of the James Bond to his personality and implied that he was a spy. Finally, in Claiming his Desert Princess, I had to come up with his story – and I was absolutely flummoxed. I had a persistent, distracting vision of him as Lord Flasheart, Rik Mayall’s character from Blackadder, which didn’t help at all.
After many sleepless nights spent cursing my own lack of foresight, I remembered Lord Armstrong and the very interesting (and convenient) gap I’d left in his family tree between the death of his first wife and his second marriage.
No, I’m not going to reveal the solution I came up with, but please feel free to read it for yourself!
Moving on to my Matches Made in Scandal quartet, I dreamed up The Procurer, a woman who played a similar role to Christopher, in that she popped up in all three books before having her own romance in A Scandalous Winter Wedding. I had, thankfully, learnt my lesson, and before The Procurer walked onto the page in From Governess to Countess, I had a very good idea of her story. I’ve just finished it, and though I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to her, I am pretty certain that I have said a final farewell. Though mind you, never say never.
Over to you now. Are there any of my characters you’d like to know more about? A little potted history posted on here, perhaps? Or do any of them deserve a romance of their own – I’ve always wondered, for example, about Felicity, newspaper editor in Strangers at the Altar. I’d love to hear your thoughts, even if they are second thoughts!