Secondary characters are used to develop the main character(s) and/or further the plot in any fiction genre, but in historical novels, the author must also ensure what they say and do is appropriate to the epoch. Whether or not the protagonist was a real person, secondary characters in this genre are often fictional, and in the story to serve a purpose. They do, however, have to be believable. For this, they should be more than ‘flat’ walk-on parts. Ideally, your secondary characters – depending on the nature of your plot – should develop or change during the course of the novel due to the actions of the protagonist or the (historical) events in the story. As with a memorable protagonist and/or antagonist, secondary and even minor characters need identifiable strengths, foibles or flaws that readers can relate to.
If you are using a secondary character to provide a motive for, reflect or refract the main character’s thoughts and actions, then that person’s own motives need to be evident. Leaving secondary characters without any back-story or identifiable personality traits undermines their credibility, and this in turn hinders how the reader interprets the main character’s point of view.
Historical fiction writers need readers to suspend disbelief and engage in another world. Historical detail can be woven into dialogue, so there are no lumpy chunks of ‘telling’, but for the dialogue to be meaningful, characters have to be credible. To achieve this, I suggest you keep a notebook with the life story or short bio for each secondary and minor character, even though you may only hint at it in your narrative.
Skilfully handled, secondary characters can also convey aspects of the main character’s personality in what is generally called ‘showing’ (as opposed to ‘telling’). If you want readers to feel or fear for your hero/heroine show how they suffer at the hands of a wicked secondary character. If your protagonist is an anti-hero and/or an evil-doer, show readers how they manipulate people using a likeable or vulnerable minor or secondary character as a victim.
Very few people in real life are wholly good or bad, and in historical fiction we are exploring a real person’s point of view and reasoning. The softer side of a notorious wrong-doer can be demonstrated by showing how they interact with or are influenced by others. Ditto, the harsher side of a supposedly good person.
But secondary characters also need to be complex in their own way. Let your backstory or mini-bios creep in to show how the footman, serving maid or local gossip behave as they do. Just beware of head-hopping in chapters!
To show you what I mean, here are three examples from The Chosen Man (Book 1 of The Chosen Man Trilogy, Penmore Press). In the first scene, I use a minor character to introduce the reader to the main character. Notice how instead of describing my protagonist, I use the minor character’s point of view to highlight aspects of his physical appearance and personality.
Scene 1: It is 1635, charismatic Genoese merchant Ludovico da Portovenere (Ludo) is on a regular voyage from the Levant to Amsterdam. We see him through the eyes of John Hawthorne, a timid English priest tasked by the Vatican to approach Ludo for a very secret, very underhand commission.
The big man wearing black, the chosen man, was standing arms akimbo, leaning into the wind. The feather of the wide-brimmed, black leather hat he grasped tightly in his right hand fluttered limply like a dead cockerel.
The young Jesuit priest from England, John Hawthorne, took a deep breath and spoke, but his words were whooshed up into the air and he was left silent. He waited, his heart pounding like the high surf, until the man turned and nodded a greeting. John tried again, but in his rush to communicate spoke in English, “You are bound for Sanlucar, sir? Or do you sail further?”
He was answered in English, which surprised him.
“Both,” said the man in black, turning back to face the sea beyond the prow of the small vessel.
“Look at those waves!”
The man gestured with a wide, open hand as if commanding the sea to rebel. His hair and beard glistened with spray as he braced himself against the screaming wind.
John Hawthorne, caught up in the drama, stared not at the oncoming wall of waves but at the man they called Ludovico da Portovenere and shuddered. Black hair, black cape, a look of mad rapture as the sea churned about them; the very image of a pirate—or the devil himself.
The Genoese merchant rode the next wave with his arms folded across his broad chest and laughed out loud. John tried to speak, but once again the air grabbed his words and tossed them high into the indigo sky. It was no good; he would have to find another opportunity. Clinging to the side of the small ship he began to shuffle away.
“You are what the English call a land-lubber, I see,” shouted the large man, but not unkindly. He moved and placed his hand under the Englishman’s elbow, bracing him firmly as a sheet of water, sharp as ice, showered down upon them.
“It is always rough here. We are too near to the coast. I’d move her out, but it’s not my ship. It’s Venetian. You can’t trust Venetian captains outside lagoons.”
“I was raised among hills and trees, sir, I know nothing of ships, nor am I a good sailor.” John Hawthorne slipped and the big foreigner righted him. “I shall never travel by sea again. I shall never travel again, anywhere, ever.”
As they edged their way towards the tiny starboard cabins, Ludovico da Portovenere kept his hold on the smaller man and chatted on as if they were taking a morning stroll.
“It is a question of upbringing. I was born at sea; my mother likes to tell how a mortal storm threw her into her travail and how I emerged flailing like a swimmer determined to survive and kicked the ship’s surgeon in the eye.”
“It makes a good story.”
“A good true story.”
John Hawthorne was too exhausted to continue talking. When they reached his cabin the man in black helped him open the door, then ducked down to follow unbidden into the small, wood-panelled space. He placed his hat on the small table, then removed his vast cape, folded it wet side inward and sidled into the bench seat. It was a tight squeeze.
John stared at the hat. Its feather was long and multi-coloured, and belonged to some exotic bird he could not name.
The Italian merchant followed his gaze. “Tail feather of an Indian cock pheasant,” he said. “Was that what you wanted to ask me?”
“Ask you?” John was flustered, out of breath from the tearing wind and fearful excitement of the storm. “No. I—um….” Endeavouring to regain his breath and conceal his discomfort, John removed his wet coat then reached into a cupboard for two cups. Willing his hands not to tremble, he poured sweet wine from a lidded jug then, keeping his head down to avoid eye-contact, he said, “As the captain mentioned at dinner, my name is John Hawthorne, sailing to Plymouth.”
“And I am Ludovico, travelling on this stage of my voyage to Sanlucar de Barrameda in Spain. But you know that.”
Not wanting to admit the claim, John said nothing and drank from his cup.
The Italian drank from his then said, “You must call me Ludo, the world calls me Ludo.”
“Well, everyone I know from the Levant to Amsterdam. I haven’t crossed the ocean to the New World yet, but I will. Then there will be Americans calling me Ludo.”
“It seems a very familiar appellation—Ludo.”
The Italian looked the English priest in the eye and said, “That comment, sir, tells me all I need to know about you.”
John Hawthorne’s cheeks flamed scarlet, “Oh, I… Shall you be sailing north to Flanders or England after Sanlucar?”
Ludo cocked his head to one side and gave a half-smile. “Holland, not Flanders. I might disembark at Sanlucar, sail up to Seville and sell my wares there. It depends.”
“Your wares? You have a cargo aboard?”
“A few barrels of this and that, some spices. These days I mostly broker sales for others; silk for Florence—that has been left in Livorno; uncut gemstones for various jewellers; some aromatics from India and Cathay. However,” he paused for dramatic effect, “on this voyage—as I think you know—I travel with a very special, very, very special commodity.”
Ludovico da Portovenere shook his head.
“No, Mr Hawthorne, more precious than diamonds or rubies. Tulips.”
The next two scenes take place in a Holland, where Ludo is manipulating the tulip market to inflate the financial bubble that became known as tulipmania or tulip fever. Marcos, Ludo’s new Spanish servant, is introduced to coffee in a tavern (epoch and setting). Look at how the reader learns more about Ludo and what is happening in Holland through the boy’s dialogue.
Leaving a glorious day of bright summer sunshine, Marcos followed Ludo through a door and stepped into a netherworld of peat-filled grates and dark afternoons. It wasn’t the typical atmosphere of Dutch taverns he had already come to know – that particular hush broken by hearty guffaws and back-slapping camaraderie – this place was a composite of scents and sounds he could not name. There was one odour in particular, a pleasant aroma but not the usual malty smell of warm beer, nor the clear liquid that they served in thumb-sized tumblers that smelled like a woman’s perfume. He stopped and inhaled.
“Coffee,” said Ludo. “Like it?”
“Doesn’t taste as good as it smells, but you can add it to your list of new accomplishments.”
Marcos gulped; the bastard knew about his journal. He knew everything – all the time! But the Italian wasn’t interested in him, his eyes were scanning the darkness; an eagle-owl detecting its prey in the half-light.
Groups of men smoking curled-stem pipes were gathered around circular tables. Above, on a balcony, six or seven burghers huddled in negotiation. One smaller table was occupied by a single client. Ludo put a hand on Marcos’ shoulder and steered him towards a corner. A stub of candle stuck in a wine bottle flickered as they disturbed the heavy air.
“Why’s it so dark?” Marcos asked.
“So people can’t see each other I expect.”
Ludo removed his wide brimmed hat and placed it conspicuously on top of his miniature sea chest in the centre of their table (. . .) settled himself into a chair and leaning back in his customary manner, gazed around him. “Dark is what they are used to,” he said. “Light is a special commodity in the Low Countries and your average Dutchman is too tight-fisted to waste money on candles. Candles offer no material return by definition.”
“You don’t like the Dutch, do you?”
“On the contrary, I enjoy them greatly: trying to out-manoeuvre them is one of my favourite pastimes. Successful strategy is the finer point of profit, Marcos. If you don’t like …” He was interrupted by the serving girl.
Marcos watched the way the plump wench looked at Ludo. What did women see in him? He wasn’t good-looking. Could they smell his money?
“I’ve ordered coffee for you to try, but not at this table. You’re my servant, remember, you should be over there.” Ludo nodded in the direction of the kitchen area. “But stay close and keep an eye out for onlookers. I’m expecting company and I want to know who sees us talking. If you notice anyone taking a special interest, follow him. Find out who he is, and where he lives if you can. I’ll see you back at the lodging tonight if we are separated.”
Readers gradually see how Marcos adopts Ludo as a role model and how the Italian exploits him. Ludo is not to be trusted, but readers are still unsure whether he’s a goodie or a baddie. In this scene, Marcos reveals his reasons for being in Holland, which in turn brings out another aspect of Ludo’s personality. Their amusing dialogue also carries a lot of essential historical background information.
Ludo and Marcos are in their Amsterdam lodging house.
Marcos rubbed at the heel of the shoe and without looking up, said, “Is it this selling that’s made you rich?”
“This selling? What selling? What are you saying boy?”
“It’s that I don’t exactly understand what you’re doing, sir.”
“And why do you need to understand? It’s none of your damned business. You only latched onto me as a means of finding your long-lost father, who you seem to have forgotten in the most unfilial manner.”
“That’s not true!” Marcos replied, hurt by the Italian’s tone. “It’s just that I want to learn and go back home with more than I came with. If I can’t find my father – and if what they say in the streets and taverns is true, that’s probably what’s going to happen – I want to go home rich.” Marcos paused, regretting his words. “Richer than when I came.” He held up the shoe and turned it in the air for inspection. “So, I was sort of wondering if perhaps you could let me have a loan, and I could buy some of what you have and sell it.”
“At a profit?”
“Oh, yes, that’s what I want to do – make a profit, like they talk about with these flowers. There’s hundreds of profit, they say, buying and selling your flowers.”
“Hundreds of profit! Interesting concept. Are you going to embalm that piece of footwear or get my breakfast?”
“Oh, yes, sorry. There’s some bread from yesterday and some ham and some beer. Do you want some of that tea stuff?”
“That ‘tea stuff ’ is very expensive merchandise, show some respect.”
“Sorry. Do you?”
Marcos busied himself in the kitchen area and picked up on the conversation he wanted to continue; “So what I was thinking was …”
“You want me to give you some bulbs so you can sell them and make hundreds of profit. And what will you give me in return?”
Marcos put a plate and a tankard down in front of the dubious merchant and looked him in the eye, confused, “I don’t understand? What do I have to give you in return?”
Ludo sighed, looked at the warm, flat beer and settled back in his chair. “I think we had better begin with the basics of commerce. Cut me some of that bread and ham – but wash your hands first.”
While the boy dipped his greasy black paws into a wash basin then turned a white linen hand-towel grey, the merchant instructed him in the art of buying at one price and selling at another: how one had to cover costs and make enough money to invest in new stock, plus enough extra to provide for the best quality ham, decent beer and fancy buckled shoes. Marcos listened intently and asked a few intelligent questions, then sat and waited until his master was near to finishing his food and all the beer had been drunk.
“But what I don’t see,” he said, “is how and why these Dutchies are buying things they’ve never seen and don’t need, with money they haven’t got.”
“Explain,” said Ludo.
“Well, last night I was in the Red Cockerel and a lot of odd bods were sneaking into a room at the back, so I sneaked in too. They were having some sort of sale, but there were only a few of those plant things you’ve got in your travelling chest. The rest were signing bits of paper for flowers that didn’t exist. Least ways I didn’t see them, I s’pose they might be in people’s gardens.”
Ludo raised an eyebrow, “Well done. And how exactly did you follow these transactions? You said you had no Dutch.”
Marcos lifted one of his master boots and started to shine it with the linen towel. “Numbers are numbers, not difficult to guess. These are the softest boots I’ve ever touched.”
“And these men, who would you say they were?”
“Oh, that’s easy, butchers and bakers, they still had their aprons on. Some toffs, as well. I followed one in like his servant, he didn’t notice. There were a couple of gents like the one you were with a few days ago. The man that owns the Cockerel was running the show. They have a special code for when they go into the room – they go ‘cock-a-doodle-do’. Sounds really stupid. I bet if you want to do business in the Golden Lion you have to go ‘grrrrr’.”
Ludo sat and stared at the boy for a moment then said, “The answer is ‘yes’. I will let you have a loan and some goods at rock bottom prices. Then you are going to make us hundreds of profit with a cock-a-doodle-do.”
He got up and went into his room to wash, saying, “And in the meantime I’m going to make thousands of profit with numbers on bits of paper and flowers that nobody can see.”
As the story proceeds, Marcos tries to protect Alina, the one woman Ludo ever truly cares for, and in doing so, becomes Ludo’s rival. Or so he’d like to think. But to find out whether Marcos is ultimately another of Ludo’s victims or a survivor, you will have to read the end of the story for yourself!
The Chosen Man Trilogy
Ludo da Portovenere is a Genoese merchant, a rogue, occasional pirate and a dubious secret agent. A man nobody should ever trust, and yet they do. He is commissioned as an agent provocateur by a Vatican cardinal (at the behest of the Pope), and as an intelligencer by European monarchs. Ludo engages in all manner of skulduggery. He is fictional, but the events in which he becomes involved in Europe and Goa, India, during the 1630s and 1640s actually happened.
See reviews on Readers’ Favorite and Discovering Diamonds.
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© J.G. Harlond
Malaga, October, 2022