Since late July, I’ve been on a road trip with my family. Me, my wife, two kids and our dog. We drove across the northern tier of States. Fifteen of them. From New York to Seattle, then on to Vancouver for a family visit. As you read this, we are on our way back to New York City. Today we probably are crossing Nebraska.
We have laughed our way through corn country, seen a sunset on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan (thank you again Vaughn Roycroft), been close to live eagles at a raptor rescue center along the upper Mississippi River, been charmed by Sioux City, been awed by the faces on Mount Rushmore. (Even more awesome were the faces from so many lands there to view that uniquely American monument.)
We’ve been rattled by the prairie wind, eaten huckleberry ice cream sandwiches at a two-pump gas station, seen prize hogs at a county fair, driven past a wild fire, walked the Badlands, crossed high rope bridges strung between redwoods, stood atop cliffs, wet our bare feet in two oceans. We’ve eaten well in unlikely places. We’ve walked among giant origami, learned that inside tipis native women circle left and native men circle right, found heart-shaped rocks in riverbeds and on beaches.
The best thing, though, has been the people we’ve met. The Sturgis motorcycle rally was happening around the time that we crossed South Dakota. Our kids were freaked out by the rough-looking bikers, but one chilly morning as several packed up their Harley’s in a hotel parking lot, my daughter asked one of them, “Don’t you get cold?” They said, oh yes! Which started a conversation about motorcycle clubs and charity rides that changed my kids’ views of bikers.
In a Spokane restaurant, our young Korean-American waitress looked at our mixed-race family and blurted out to our kids, “Are you adopted? I’m adopted too!” She cheerfully talked about her mixed-race adoptive parents and her four siblings, all adopted on different continents. Her childhood in Spokane was a great experience, free of racial prejudice. She was just one of the many friends my kids made. People have been nice everywhere. (Well, except for one painfully thin woman having a very bad day in the parking lot of a natural foods market in Beaverton, Oregon, but hey.)
It’s been a journey. Which has put me in mind of journey novels, and what it is that makes them feel like journeys. Even more than the places that characters go, or the things that they do, what makes a journey novel feel like a journey are the people with whom protagonists travel, those who impede or attack them, and the folks they meet along the way.
Journey novels are among my favorites, and I’ll bet they’re among your favorites too. Gulliver’s Travels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings. There are plenty of great contemporary journey novels too. The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, The Alchemist, Imajica, Neverwhere. WU’s own Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest. I’m sure you can add to the list.
For our purposes, we can break the casts of journey novels into three categories: 1) The protagonist’s allies and fellow travelers, 2) The protagonist’s enemies, 3) Locals. Allies and fellow travelers both support the protagonist and represent different sides of him or her. Enemies represent what is evil or wrong with the world. Locals reflect different dimensions of humanity, good, bad and in-between. In other words, every character represents something.
Huckleberry Finn has one main companion in his raft journey on the Mississippi River, the runaway slave Jim. Huck is fleeing his violent and drunk father, Pap Finn; even more he is running from his oppressive guardian, the Widow Douglas, and her prim sister Miss Watson, who both attempt to “sivilize” him and teach him religion. You can see the symbolic roles those characters play. Huck longs to be free. Jim is the outward representation of that. Pap Finn and the sisters Douglas and Watson are oppressors of different sorts but together represent everything that’s wrong with civilization. Indeed, pious Miss Watson is the slaveholder owner of Jim.
Huck’s river journey becomes necessary when he fakes his own death to escape his father, a plan which backfires. Jim is blamed for Huck’s “murder” and a reward is offered for his capture. Huck learns of this from a woman new to the area, Judith Loftus, whom he visits dressed as a girl. Mrs. Loftus is suspicious that he’s actually a boy and puts him to several tests which a girl would easily pass. Her role is both to test Huck and to begin his separation from the feminine world of town, home, and school.
In Kentucky, Huck witnesses the slaughter of the men of the Grangerford family by the Shepherdson family, with whom they are feuding. Later, Huck and Jim take aboard two grifters, the Duke and the King, whose claims of royal blood are outrageous and who bungle their attempted swindle of the family of a dead rich man. Still later, on the plantation of Silas and Sally Phelps, Huck is mistaken for the Phelps’s nephew, Tom Sawyer. Tom arrives, continues the ruse, and concocts a plan to free Jim; a plan that goes awry because it is based on adventure books that Tom has read and excites his imagination more than it helps the imperiled slave Jim.
It takes all those secondary characters, and more, to fully enact Mark Twain’s intent to show the hilarity and hypocrisy of humanity. In fact, it is precisely because he includes so many of them, and lampoons our human folly so thoroughly, that his novel endures.
Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is the tale of young London businessman Richard Mayhew, who helps a mysterious girl named Door, only to find himself invisible. He loses his job, friends and flat. To set things right, Richard must descend to the realm of London Below. There Richard receives help from a tramp, who is the only person who can see him. Along the way he interacts with the Rat-Speakers and a number of characters, like the Earl (of the Earl’s Court) and the angel called Islington, all of whom are, in one way or another way, ironic reflections of different aspects of the London—really, the whole world—above.
Secondary characters also perform symbolic roles in Juliette Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, a retelling of the classic tale The Six Swans. (Read it. It’s enchanting.) Now, you might think that it is easier to put secondary characters in symbolic roles if you are writing fantasy. Not so. Any novel can feel like a journey and it is the use of secondary characters that makes it so.
So, here are some prompts aimed at making the roles of the secondary characters in your story more sharply meaningful:
- Who are your protagonist’s friends, allies and supporters? What is one way in which each has something your protagonist lacks, or is in some way more like the better person your protagonist must become? Create one moment in which that good quality unmistakably shines.
- Who works against your protagonist? What is the main way in which each antagonistic character manifests the worst of human nature? What is each’s justifying philosophy? What is the worst thing that each can do to your protagonist?
- List the secondary characters your protagonist encounters in your novel’s middle. What would each represent or tell us about human nature if your name was Dante, Orwell, Tolkien or Grimm? Find one way to grow that symbolic meaning.
If you fear that making sharp statements though characters is too obvious or is unrealistic, look at it this way: What makes characters real is what makes them human, and what is wrong with helping us to see ourselves more clearly through your characters?
Likewise, consider this: Novels have power when they make us think. When we recognize universal human qualities in characters, we readers are—guess what—thinking. You can create that delightful effect by deliberately making associations that we will notice. Doing that isn’t artless, it’s artful. It’s timeless storytelling.
What are your favorite journey novels? How are you using secondary characters in your novel in symbolic ways?