Secondary characters in historical fiction

Secondary characters are used to develop the main character(s) and/or further the plot in any fiction genre, but in historical fiction the author also has to ensure what they say and do is appropriate to the epoch of the novel.

Whether or not the protagonist was a real person, secondary characters are frequently fictional constructs and in the story to serve a purpose. They do, however, have to be believable;  meaning they should be more than ‘flat’ walk-on parts. Secondary characters should – depending on the nature of your plot – develop or change during the course of the novel, and have identifiable strengths, foibles or flaws readers can relate to. If you are using a secondary character to provide a motive for what is happening to your main character then that person’s own motives need to be evident. Leaving secondary characters without any back-story or identifiable strengths or weaknesses undermines their credibility, and this will ultimately detract from the main character(s). Fiction writers need their readers to suspend disbelief: to engage in another world and empathise or sympathise with the protagonist. This means the plot has to be flawless and all the characters in the book have to be utterly believable. To achieve this you need to create a life story for each secondary (and minor) character, even if you do not include any of it in your story.

Skilfully handled, secondary characters can effectively 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 let them see how they suffer at the hands of a wicked secondary character. If, on the other hand, your protagonist is an evil-doer, show readers how s/he manipulates people. Very few people in real life, however, are truly good or bad, and in historical fiction we are often exploring a real person’s character. Both the coming of age of an ‘innocent’ and the of the softer side of a notorious wrong-doer can be demonstrated by showing how they interact with others, and what that leads them to do next. This is why secondary characters need to be complex in their own way; why there should be a two-way reaction between principal and secondary characters.

Let’s look at three examples from my seventeenth century novel, The Chosen Man (Penmore Press,) and I’ll show you how I created and used a secondary character to influence the plot, and both reflect and refract aspects of the hero’s personality and actions. The first scene is an example of how a wholly innocent character (Marcos) can be used to expose aspects of the main character’s personality (Ludo da Portovenere). Subsequent scenes show how Marcos unwittingly helps instigate a financial scam, and how he grows and changes as a direct result of his interaction with the main character, Ludo.

This scene comes from the beginning of the novel. Charismatic Genoese merchant Ludovico da Portovenere (Ludo) is on his way to a secret meeting in a Spanish cortijo with an English priest; they have been joined on the road out of Sanlucar by a youth on a bony nag carrying a dusty pennant. The boy is Marcos Alonso Almendro, currently working in his mother’s hostel but desperate to get out into the world. Marcos is pretending to be a young hidalgo and he has taken Ludo and his English companion to a rundown inn.

It is spring, 1635.

(Ludo) watched the Englishman exit then turned his bright eyes on the youth standing behind him. “Now, you, sit down and tell me what’s going on.”

Marcos straightened his shoulders and pulled out a rickety chair with as much dignity as he could muster.

“Out with it. What are you up to? Why have you got us here and what do you plan to do with us now we’re here?”

Marcos settled his cap on a knee and ran his fingers around its rim. “I thought you might like to pause in your journey …”
“In our journey to … to … Where is it we’re going? Come on, I remember you hovering about with a tray listening to what was none of your business.” Ludo waggled a stumpy forefinger at Marcos with mock severity. “Did you honestly expect me not to recognise you? Come along now; think it through a bit more clearly. I was the person that asked you the whereabouts of the cortijo remember, after my visitor had left?”

Marcos lowered his eyes.

“Well you were too quick with your directions my lad. From which I infer you know exactly where we are going.”

Marcos nodded and muttered, “El Cortijo el Gallo, sir.”

“Correct. Now tell me more.”

“About the cortijo? It belongs to the Conde Duque de Olivares, or so they say. It was all shut up, but I think someone lives there again now. Some say it’s haunted.” Marcos lifted his head and looked the merchant in the eye, “I’m sorry sir – about the … You won’t tell my mother, she’ll flay me alive.”

“No, don’t fret, I don’t tell tales. But I need the full story and be quick about it, that skinny priest’s got a bladder like a pea, he’ll be back here to listen if you don’t get on with it.”

“Full story, sir, about the cortijo? I don’t know anything else.”

Ludo leaned back, causing his chair to creak alarmingly, and blew out his cheeks. “About you and that pretty flag; you don’t want to lose that, can’t have been easy getting the girl to part with her petticoat.”

“She didn’t notice it’d gone till the morning …” Marcos stopped and bit his lip.

As you can see, Marcos may be enterprising and have a way with the girls, but at this stage he is still very innocent. Ludo recognises something of himself in the boy and does eventually, albeit reluctantly, allow Marcos to travel with him.

The next scene is where Marcos first begins to act on his own. They are now in Holland, where Ludo is making his first moves to manipulate the tulip market in the financial scandal that became known as tulip fever. He and Marcos, who is acting as his servant, are in a tavern. This is where Marcos is introduced to his first taste of coffee, and where Ludo sets him his first real task.

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?”

“It’s wonderful.”

“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.”

“Yes sir.” Marcos got up and doffed his soft cloth hat. It wasn’t a fatuous move, Ludo’s tone was too serious for that.

“Chat up the waitress,” added his master, “see if that man up there by himself is a regular or if he just came in today.”

“How shall I do that? I don’t speak Dutch – or French – and she won’t have any Latin.”

“You’ll manage. Languages are only an obstacle to people with no imagination. Do you have an imagination, Marcos?” . . .

. . . Marcos leaned against the high trestle table that acted as a bar at the back of the tavern. The waitress placed a small white china cup beside him and smiled. He winked and lifted the cup. Keeping his eyes on the girl’s blue gaze he gulped the hot brown liquid. The wench smiled as his eyes opened in shock and surprise. He would have spat out the foul tasting stuff immediately but she was in his direct line of fire: she’d put herself there on purpose. He moved the scalding, bitter liquid around his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The cheeky wench laughed, said something incomprehensible and raised a hand holding a bowl of brown granules. With her free hand she spooned some into his cup and stirred. Marcos stared at the brown poison. He was going to have to drink it. The girl mimicked his wink and waited until he had the cup to his lips again before skipping off to serve new customers.

Marcos took just a very small sip. It tasted better. In fact it was quite nice. Crossing one leg in front of the other and leaning sideways with an elbow on the high bench behind him, in what he considered the appropriate stance for a coffee habitué, he took in his murky surroundings. The door to the street opened and in that instant of light something on the balcony caught his eye, he glanced up. Something had glinted. That something was a pair of round spectacles on the round face of a gnome-like creature from a children’s fairy tale; a shoemaker, a tailor. Whoever and whatever he was, he was bending down observing Ludo through the balcony railings with far too much interest. Marcos looked for the girl; now he needed to find out about two men. But exactly how he was going to learn anything at all was quite beyond his imagination.

Marcos has clearly adopted Ludo as a role model and the Italian is taking advantage of it. At this stage readers are not sure whether Ludo is to be trusted: whether he’s a goodie or a baddie. How he handles Marcos in this scene suggests he exploits people for his own ends. The next scene shows how Marcos is beginning to develop his own character – but still very much under Ludo’s influence. They are in Ludo’s lodgings in Amsterdam.

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.” He 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 help me 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?”

“Tea? No!”

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 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 case. 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 – and 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.”

The final short extract takes place two years later. Readers have seen know Ludo has used a variety of innocent people to create a financial bubble, all of whom are going to lose everything they possess. But they also now know Ludo is acting under orders and his life is in danger, meaning Marcos is at risk, too. Ludo is preparing for a quick getaway during the night. This is where Marcos starts to grow up and become his own man. The scene starts by Ludo starts by saying:

“I’m travelling in boots, you should do the same. Now get down to your bank and withdraw all your funds, even if you’re not coming with me. Call in all your loans and keep the cash on you. Don’t leave a cent in any bank, understand? Don’t accept any bank or credit notes.”


“I think you’re clever enough to work that out for yourself. Same as you can work out why this trunk is a handy decoy. If you can’t see straight today believe me in a week’s time you will.”

Marcos looked at Ludo for a long moment. “You’re going to undermine them, aren’t you? Bring the prices down. Ruin the market. Henning, Elsa – ruin them all.”

“I thought you knew that.”

“I did. It didn’t seem wrong then.”

There is a hint here that Ludo is not all bad; he is trying to save the boy. This may tip the balance in his favour – slightly. Hopefully, from this point on readers will turn pages to find out what happens to them: whether Ludo survives, and whether Marcos escapes from their pursuers and Ludo’s influence.

The Spanish boy is not my only secondary character, but I have used these extracts to show how he reflects and refracts what my wicked main character says and does. Marcos shows how people fell victim to the Italian’s charm, and suffered for it. To find out whether Marcos is ultimately a victim or a survivor, however, you will have to read the end of the story for yourself!

(Written for: Famelton Writing Services, 2013)

Author: J.G. Harlond

Secret agents, skulduggery, crime with a touch of humour and romance. Award-winning author J.G. Harlond (Jane) writes page-turning historical crime fiction and fantasy. 'The Chosen Man Trilogy' features wily rogue Ludo da Portovenere, one-time pirate and occasional secret agent, who becomes involved in royal and political intrigues in 17th century Europe and beyond. Each story is based on real events. 'Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries' feature dumpy, grumpy, DS Bob Robbins, brought out of retirement during the Second World War. Cosy crime with a sinister twist set in Devon and Cornwall. Each story includes real events. After travelling widely, Jane is now settled in Málaga, southern Spain. She has a large family living in various parts of Europe, North America and Scandinavia. Jane has visted or lived in most of the places featured in her books.

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