Secondary characters can layer your plot with tension and add depth to your world. Unlike the hero and heroine – who in theory deserve their HEA by the end of the book – the other characters’ fates are not predetermined. Will the Plot B heroine get her guy? Does she deserve it? Is she ally or double agent? We don’t know. Cue the music. Da-da-da-DUM.
But “morally ambiguous character” is not the same as “wildly unpredictable plot fodder”. If done intentionally, fine. Sending mixed signals to other characters and the reader about a secondary character can reveal their internal conflict and build tension. If done poorly – or worse, as the result of careless writing – such characters erode trust between you and your reader.
My favorite example of confusion-done-well is not a character but the story structure of a movie. In “Pulp Fiction” the scenes are in non-chronological sequence, but the audience is never truly confused – we know we’re in good hands. The structure serves the story, and thus, we as viewers can relax and enjoy the ride.
It’s different when we’re confused because the director or author isn’t delivering on their promise about a character – or can’t even articulate what the promise is.
I’ve been kept up at night worrying - and not in a good way - about the fate of a secondary character, the wife of an alpha shifter in a Series That Shall Not Be Named. She is a perfect example of how sending mixed signals backfires on the reader and undercuts the credibility of the morality of the world she lives in. To protect the innocent, we’ll call her Rachel.
The setup: Paranormal shifter series. They live long or forever (as long as they don’t get the ol’ head chop choppy). Sort of Urban Fantasy because there is one main couple throughout the series, but the point of view is third person and switches between a few characters. The crime and the evidence, after the jump:
The crime: Rachel is bad, bad to the bone. The hero of the series – and therefore Big White Hat – doesn’t like her. She’s his stepmother. His dad, alpha of shifters and Another Big White Hat, doesn’t like her (note: it’s the alpha’s *wife* we’re talking about – more on that in a bit). No one who’s “good” in the series likes her. We are told this, they tell each other this, they think it. Anvil delivered on our heads. She’s bad. We get it.
The evidence: According to her husband, Alpha, she is “selfish and stupid”. She’s vain. She flirts with other men. She reminds people of her status as the Alpha’s wife and tries to use that power as leverage over other people. Rachel tells White Hats to “shut up” when they are mean to her. She does not always agree with her husband’s opinions. She is aware everyone hates her and aware her husband does not love her.
Her defense: This is a woman who has been in an emotionally abusive relationship for over 200 years. Her husband has not allowed himself to get close to her to protect his heart, because he really loves his dead first wife, who all the White Hats agree, was Perfect. So the Alpha uses Rachel for sex, doesn’t respect her, and has told everyone this is the case. Hmmm. It’s so strange that she feels defensive.
I’ll also add that the alphas in this universe compel obedience, so it’s unclear whether Rachel *could* leave this relationship. In addition, he controls the entire political and social scene in which they live.
Rachel is hurt that the Alpha still loves his dead first wife and doesn’t respect her. She works hard not to reveal this hurt, as she had no real friends or anyone she can trust. She masks her hurt with anger. No one in the shifter group is motivated to become friends with her or see the motivation behind her actions, as it would be tantamount to defying their leader. She suffers from low confidence – obviously fostered from the 200 years of emotional withholding by the Alpha. He rebuffs all her attempts, in their one-on-one scenes, to get close to him emotionally or as equals, and he turns all their interactions into silent sex. Lovely.
The red flags on Rachel – and the Alpha – show up in book 1, as soon as her character is introduced. What supposed “good guy” marries a woman who thinks is selfish and stupid? Admittedly Rachel is immature and feels sorry for her self – self-pity being an unforgivable crime in the Romance genre – but she also has had no enriching relationships with anyone for at least – I keep emphasizing this – 200 years. It’s enough to make you a wee bit emotionally stunted. And why does none of the other characters see Rachel’s acting out for what it is - a cry for attention? It’s Psych 101, people.
Summary: the “tells” are: Rachel is bad. But the “shows” are: this is a lonely woman in an abusive relationship.
So now I don’t trust the author. Because we’re 3 books and a novella into this series, and there’s been nothing done to organically evolve the mix-up between the “tells” and the “shows.” The alpha is still an unvarnished White Hat and Rachel is still Vain And Silly Sex Toy. In contrast with all the other character (and maybe the author? unclear), I feel sorry for Rachel. Her actions all seem perfectly reasonable reactions to her situation. The only thing she’s guilty of is not leaving the Alpha, but it’s unclear she could even if she tried. I’ve now been pulled out of the story, which makes me go "grrr." I’m afraid to read the next book in the series because I suspect the author will deliver on the “tells.” This does a disservice to Rachel, who is – intentionally or not – the most interesting character in the series.
Lesson learned: your character can be ambiguous, but never your writing.