When the Wingman Takes the Wheel

Are you a Top Gun fan? It was the first time I’d heard the term “wingman,” but now that word—and the image of Anthony Edwards (yes, the link is for his Twitter page!) as Goose—is part of my character lexicon.

There’s also “shotgun.” Remember calling it out as a kid when Mom had to pile everyone in the station wagon? It was such a big deal to see who got to ride up front with her while the rest of us pummeled each other in the back. Um, as the youngest of four, I got pummeled a lot.

In most fiction, the hero or heroine will have a key friend or confidante. Someone with whom they can share most, though not all, their darkest secrets. It’s important that we see a protagonist have successful social skills with this wingman. Mr. D’Arcy in Pride and Prejudice might come across as proud and arrogant, but we see a warmth from him when he deals with his good friend Mr. Bingley. Despite years of being ignored in the cupboard under the stairs, it doesn’t take Harry Potter more than five minutes to befriend Ron Weasley. And, of course, where would Carrie Bradshaw be without Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte?

But as a reader, how often have you encountered this supposedly secondary character in a book and s/he captivated you? A little? A lot? Did you find yourself thumbing ahead, thinking, “When do we get to the next scene that has THAT character in it??”

I talk to a lot of writers (what? I do!..) so I know I’m not alone in the frustrating experience of having a secondary character who refuses to give up the limelight. So far, these characters tend to be male (hmmm, I’m channeling something, perhaps?). I don’t mean for them to overshadow the hero of the book, but often, the unanswered questions I leave about them beckons readers to tell me, “I want HIS story.”

Of course, this leads to the inevitable spin-off book, even if I wasn’t planning a sequel, per se. We’ve seen it on television. All In The Family begat The Jeffersons. Cheers begat Frasier. Friends begat Joey. Okay, some are more successful than others.

Authors struggle with these characters. I try—often in vain—to stuff them back into their supporting roles. But no, these characters are determined to be the heroes of their own stories. Should I deny them? Should I ignore their pent-up stories? Should I leave the mysteries of their pasts unexplored?

Should I maybe leave them out of the book?

Seriously, that’s what I want to know from readers. Are you tired of the secondary character who is clearly begging to be the hero/heroine of his/her own book? Does it feel like authors are just milking a story line by introducing these secondary characters who are clearly destined to quarterback their own books?

Or do you, as a reader, enjoy the linking of these stories? Do you want a larger story that continually builds on characters you’ve already met in a setting you already know? Does the hint of these secondary characters inspire you to polish off the current book and clamor for the next?

I have started five different books that I swore were stand-alone titles and yet, each time, characters appeared who then wrestled for command of the current plot. Failing to take control, they demanded to have larger roles in future stories. So, I just don’t know. Perhaps it’s unconscious. Maybe all the trilogy movies are having an effect on me. Or maybe, that’s just the way our human brains work. We seek connections. Connected books are good.

Bottom line: Is there a wingman you’d like to see take the wheel? Or, since every positive has a negative, was there one given his/her own book and who made you want to choke?

And, because it’s close to the holidays, I’ll give one lucky commenter a choice of a $25 Amazon card or $25 Barnes and Noble card. Winner to be selected from all comments left by midnight tonight (Nov. 30th).

About Amy Atwell

Amy Atwell is a storyteller at heart. After fifteen years in professional theater, she turned from the stage to the page to write contemporary capers and historical tales that combine romance and adventure. Her books are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. When not writing, she runs the online author communities WritingGIAM and Author E.M.S.
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63 Responses to When the Wingman Takes the Wheel

  1. Edie Ramer says:

    I’ve gotten requests for sequels for Cattitude. Readers want stories of the hero’s brother and sister. I can’t do that. What made Catittude fun was Belle the cat, and her story has been told. But in Dead People, I’ve been in love with my heroine’s ghost friend since the first scene. I always planned to have a sequel for him. Hopefully I’ll have time to write it next year.

    • Amy Atwell says:

      I can see why readers would find Max’s brother and sister engaging. The brother definitely has future hero potential. But I agree that the story is unique because of Belle’s situation. So, the Wingman won’t always get his own story–good to know!

  2. Cynthia Eden says:

    I love wingmen–and whenever possible, I try to give them books. 🙂

  3. Linda Henderson says:

    Well frankly I love connected books. I probably read as much or more of them than I do stand-alones. I like the continuation of characters from the first story, even if there is only a reference to them, it’s like we haven’t lost them. Just because they meet and fall in love, it’s not the end of the story. That’s why I like connected story. It’s like a postscript to the original. I hope that makes some sense.

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Hi, Linda–thanks for dropping by! Yes, it makes perfect sense. As a reader, the advantage of connected books is I’m already familiar with the setting and at least some of the characters’ back stories. I can hit the ground running! And if there’s a bigger story arc that runs through all the connected books, all the better. I hope I’m able to pull it off with my own writing!

  4. Carrie Lofty says:

    I like to believe that all characters have the potential to carry their own stories, but that’s just not true. Several times I’ve been asked if Ingrid & Christoph, the married couple in my two Carina books, will have their own prequel. Sorry, but no! They’re just too stable, and even though the comes from different backgrounds, I can’t imagine milking enough conflict to make a convincing romance for them. It would be very quick, sweet, and probably pretty dull.

    So I really try to keep in mind, from the outset, who is in charge of the books. (Hint: it’s me!) I haven’t really had too many characters challenge me on that yet, but some are definitely easier to write than others. Some bounce onto the page fully formed (love them), and others need coaxing. I think that mystery part of the process makes it a helluva lot of fun 🙂

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Carrie, I agree–the fully formed characters are so much easier to write than the ones who need coaxing. It can take me drafts and drafts of scenes if I’m having to coax details out of a character! But I love that you know you have some characters who were created, and will remain!, secondary characters.

  5. Dale Mayer says:

    Ahhhh wingmen – I do so love them! I think they add complexity to a story! And when they are being barely restrained, it adds passion and energy to a book. Everyone can see them straining to jump out and be real. I’m probably in the minority, but I just move on and plan out their stories!

    Dale

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Maybe not the minority, Dale, although I know you tend to draft multiple stories at once. Not everyone is that organized! I do tend to jot down snatches of dialogue or impressions of future scenes. Then I tuck them away. They come in handy as I work through the future book.

  6. Mary Jo says:

    First of all, I’m more the shotgun era, not the wingman, though I love both references for the same character. The book I’m revising now has a hero who was so strong as a secondary character in the first book I ever wrote that I wrote his story. The first book became a very small subplot in the story I’m working on now. Go figure. Of course, I was a true neophyte back then at the first book stage.

    In Lying Eyes, I can see several possible sequels or characters who demand to have their own stories told. I’m finding it delightful to read and wonder if, when and how, you might do so. 🙂

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Good to see you back, Mary Jo! (Mary Jo won a copy of Lying Eyes two weeks ago here) So glad you’re enjoying the story! LE didn’t come to me as a stand alone book. From day one it was conceived as part of my lying, cheating, stealing trilogy. So, the sisters were introduced and written with the idea that they’d need to carry their own future books. What I didn’t see was Hunter becoming a possible future hero. And I knew Cosmo would be the glue to hold the series together, but he’s taken a much more onstage role than I anticipated. Fortunately, he’s very fun to write! So, yes, there are more books intended, and I’m already working on Cheating Hearts. Haven’t handed it off to my editor yet, so please be patient!

  7. Bonnie Dodge says:

    I love to give secondary characters their own books. In my historical novel, a secondary character has been begging for her own book since I wrote the end. Also, something my critique partners have been doing — we’ve been writing together for over ten years — is give cameos to characters from each others books. A Civil War doctor from one story pops up in a Idaho mining story, etc. As authors we are the only ones who know what is going on, but its been a fun way to layer in characters. It’s true that not all secondary characters are interesting enough to carry a whole book, but look what Jean Rhys did with “Wide Sargasso Sea,” the story of Rochester ‘s crazy wife from “Jane Eyre.” I agree, we read to feel connected, and what connects us are interesting characters.

  8. Amy Atwell says:

    Bonnie, what fun for you and your fellow writers to work each others’ characters into cameos. Brilliant! I’d love to see a steampunk series featuring the men from Phileas Fogg’s club–the ones who bet him he couldn’t make it around the world in 80 days. Just about any “classic” book, there’s some character in there it would be fun to spin off. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Wingman? I sometimes root for them to steal the heroine away. When writing, I try to find a reason in the end why that can’t happen. I write mysteries. Guess what I do with them????

    A sequel with them… not unless I want a paranormal!

    Great subject, Amy. I thought each sister in Lying Eyes was getting 😈 her own story!

    • Amy Atwell says:

      LOL, Liz–yes, I’ve had one of those wingmen where it was dang hard not to have the heroine run away with him. And yes, though I’ve yet to write it, he will get his own book.

  10. Ooooh, fascinating question, Amy! I tend to really enjoy the wingman who gets his day later (like the various Navy SEALs in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series 😛 ). The very first wingman I remember feeling that way about, though, was actually in Romeo and Juliet. I wanted MORE Mercutio! Why couldn’t HE be the hero?! He was a guy who was funny, clever and charismatic… And I remember being told that the reason Shakespeare had to kill him off was just for that reason — he was TOO interesting to readers and drew attention away from the main couple. But I’m still mad about that. 😆

    • Amy Atwell says:

      How funny about Mercutio, Marilyn–well, not funny for him, but you know… In my historical, the hero’s cousin is very similar to Mercutio. He’s the comic relief, but beneath that you know he’s very smart and very brave. Halfway through the book, I realized I had to write a story for him. And I hate to say it, but I have to hurt him in a way that temporarily destroys his joie de vivre.

      I’m also a fan of Suz’s SEALS. Yum.

  11. EmmaD says:

    I love secondary characters that get their own book 🙂 For me having strong characters besides the lead make for a more enjoyable book and give me something to look forward too after I’ve finished. In recent books I really enjoyed Vivian Arend’s Wolf Tracks. We had seen glimpses of TJ through the other books and I wanted to read his story.

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Interesting, Emma. So you’re reading the current book and looking forward, hopefully, to continuing on with the familiar characters. Especially if there’s a cool wingman. Good to know. Thanks for stopping by.

      BTW, is that a real horse or a Breyer horse in your Avatar??? LOL The pic is so small, but I’m a collector of Breyer model horses.

  12. Jill James says:

    I love secondary characters who light up the page, especially the wingman. If the hero is truly heroic, a great guy, he would have other great guys around him. So of course, they would be heroic too, and worthy of their own story.

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Jill, you’re so right about the hero having cool friends. I’ve been taught that the hero can only be as heroic as the villain is villainous. (Does that make sense?) But I think the hero becomes even more heroic if he’s got equally heroic friends who will stand by him.

  13. I enjoy reading and writing casts of characters like Robyn Carr, Susan Mallery, and Suzanne Brockmann. And I follow a series until each secondary character has their book. I love interconnected stories. Unfortunately for me, and my secondary characters, medical romance wants the focus on the primary relationship. They allow very few secondary characters. (But I worked a couple in!)

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Hi, Wendy! Glad to hear you’re “working the system” over there in medical romance. I would think fellow doctors would make great wingmen! Okay, so I’m breathing easier. Obviously, I’m not alone in appreciating when a wingman gets his/her own story.

  14. Sandy says:

    I love series stories, so there definitely better be a wingman (secondary character) who wants his own story. In my first story, a secondary character demanded her story, but I wouldn’t let her have it until the third book. I taught her to stay in line. lol

    • Amy Atwell says:

      LOL Sandy–that’s right, you teach that secondary character who’s in charge! It’s amazing the way we wrestle with them. I often think that people who don’t write must think writers are the strangest creatures…

  15. I love series, so I always fall for a secondary character. In There’s Only Been You, I knew Garrett would have to have his own story. And in Garrett’s story, Meant To Be, I fell hard for Jack Sutton, so I’m working on his story now. 😉

    I’m reading Lying Eyes right now and loving it, though I’m only on chapter 3 (had company all weekend, so I’m waaay behind on everything…and now I have a computer that keeps freezing…sigh). Can’t wait till I put the kiddies to bed tonight so I can get back to it! 😀

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Donna, glad to hear you’re working on a wingman story now. Although, I guess he’s no longer the wingman. So, has another wingman appeared in this latest wip? And thanks for reading LE. I hope you’ll get a kick out of it. Chapter 3 is…well, I don’t want to spoil it. But it’s *important.* LOL

  16. Liz Kreger says:

    I always love secondary characters and when they get their own books. Particularly if the author does a great job with the world building. I just want to know more and more about that story and that world.

  17. rr smythe says:

    Hi aim. (yes, thats a phonetic for the nickname lol)

    This only happened to me once. And the character was female. I always cast my characters and this secondary one was the spittin image of Helena Bonham Carter. She took over. sigh. I ended up splitting the book–which is two now in a series, so I let her have her limelight, the minx.

    For the record, I loved Frasier more than Cheers.

    ronna

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Ronna, so your wingman character demanded equal time from the get-go. Fascinating. But you found a way to work with her. (Well, I’d work with Helena Bonham Carter, too. Sheesh…) Thanks for swinging by!

  18. I also love it when secondary characters get their own books. Eloisa James weaves her secondary characters in so nicely; you never feel put upon. (And I know a great place where you can get a Coach bag, Amy 😉

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Hey Carol–I agree, so many of the Regency period authors do a fabulous job of integrating their characters. Eloisa is a master. And I plan to include a Coach handbag scheme in my next book.

  19. mariska says:

    I love reading books when secondary character has their own book. Sometimes you just need to know what will happen with them, how’s their love life *wink*

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Mariska, absolutely. The beauty of a secondary character is that you don’t spend too much time revealing details. Often, they’re sounding boards for the hero or heroine. But that just piques the readers’ curiosity. I mean, look at all of us–I have yet to hear anyone say they hate it when a secondary character goes on to get his own book!

  20. I love connected stories, sequels,and wingmen! Once i connect with a character I don’t want them to just go away – I want to know they are continuing on and then I want to meet their friends and get to know them too. Why wouldn’t I? Any person that my beloved new character friend would be friends with has got to be great – right?

    My favorite series? The McCloud Brothers series by Shannon McKenna – prominantly on my “keeper” shelf and well-worn.

    I am writing a book now and it is planned as a 4 part series. When I met Jackson, my currernt hero, he introduced me to his three best friends and I knew that I wanted to tell their stories.

    Great post Amy!

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Robin, good to see you and so glad you connected with the post! I like your thinking: if a=b and b=c than a=c. So, if I like THIS hero, and he has friends HE likes, then I will like THEM. LOL And Kudos on working on a 4 book series!

  21. Jane says:

    Ooh, I love it when sidekicks get their own story. I’m waiting for Anne Mallory to write a story about Faye and St. John who have made appearances in previous books.

  22. Lynn Cahoon says:

    Amy, for me the secondary characters take over yelling that they want their story told. And honestly, once I build a world, I want to stay there a while. Find out what else is going on down the street, walk around the neighborhood.

    All the shows I like usually get cancelled but one they haven’t spun off that I’d love to see if Angela M. and Hodges from Bones. Maybe they could become traveling squints, helping out in different cases….

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Hey there Lynn, yes the familiarity with the world is a bonus to wingman books. Unless, like me, you create a wingman series (3 brothers) where each book is a different city. What was I thinking?? And Bones. I hear great things about Bones. I probably need to watch Bones…

  23. infinitieh says:

    Strong wingmen (and wingwomen) deserve their own stories. I’ve read books in which I liked the secondary characters way more than the main ones so, yes, I’d love to read their stories. And sequels are a way to check in with the beloved original couple and see how they’re doing. So, it’s all good!

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Thanks, Infinitieh! One other bonus–checking back in with the previous couple. A wingman book can become an expanded epilogue for the previous book. You’re right–it’s all good!!

  24. Walt M says:

    Amy, I have been waiting all day to read the post. I pulled up the sight earlier and then got busy with work. Finally, after work, helping kids with homework, and putting lights on the tree, I got the chance to read this post.

    When I wrote my first manuscript, I never thought about the concept of a wingman. However, the hero’s brother was a total ham and demanded his own book. I’m now working on that book. And it’s been really odd to discover that he has issues with women and his father. (Go figure.) I keep wondering if I really created this character has he’s multi-dimensional.

    Personally, I enjoy characters that are well developed and that make me want to read about them.

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Walt, you got lights up on your tree?? You’ve got a tree? It was 80 on FL today, I’m so not ready for Christmas… However, it’s fascinating to hear that you didn’t consciously think about positioning a wingman, and yet he found you. Yeah, characters are tricky that way. And yes, you created him, with all his 3-dimensional angst, but he’s still got some glimmer that comes from your unconscious so he surprises you. That’s what I love about writing.

  25. Walt M says:

    Let me explain that. I enjoy good secondary characters that make me want to seek them out in their own book.

  26. Amy, I’m with everyone else–love the wingmen (and wingwomen). I’ve done the same thing with books that were supposed to be stand alones but ended up with sequels. I loved Lying Eyes and we’ve already talked about a specific wingman in there. 😉

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Hi Stacey–I love that you’ve created short story anthologies using wingmen and women. Linked stories all in one volume–brilliant! And yes, I know whose story you’re waiting to see. His will be a few books down the road. Sorry, sisters first!

  27. Because I’m working on a series, I get to make the secondary characters live a little more with each book, which has been great. Two in particular in my series get more of a life than I ever thought they would 🙂 .

    I love books where all the characters are so richly drawn they feel as large as life, although Carrie is right, some are too stable and too secure for a chance at a book of their own. They enrich but couldn’t carry the load on their own.

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Michelle, don’t you love when you discover the right story line for those wingman characters? They take center stage and suddenly you have a new book! Can’t wait to see your historical this spring!

  28. Actually, several of my characters were so well liked by my CPs that I had to promise the characters their own books so I could tone them down in original stories. They were outshining the H&H. So not a good thing.

  29. LaDonna says:

    Amy, I’m smiling here cause hubby and I caught Top Gun while channel surfing today and watched it. So, I totally got my dose of Top Gun and the Wingman scenario. 😆 And I love how you start out writing single titles and then walla, a secondary character wants their own show. I love it!

    And yes, just as you say too… the writer is the one who knows whether a secondary book will work or not. Some are pinpoints of light, while others sparkle like a diamond tiara! 😎

    • Amy Atwell says:

      LaDonna, how funny that you caught Top Gun. I haven’t seen it in years. I bet Tom Cruise looked like a baby! But isn’t it crazy how it happens? You get a third or halfway into a book, and voila, there’s a wingman saying, “You know, if you give ME a book, I’ll be a better hero than HERO over there!” They’re always such smart alecks, but I love them!

  30. I love wingman series. I’ve written a few. 😉

  31. Having given up the dream at 17 of being a fighter pilot, Top Gun was, of course, my favorite movie for many many years. Even made Favorite Navy Guy watch it every time he came to visit which, I contend, is why he wound up in the NAVY!

    I’ve had to tame the secondary male character in each of my books and I’ve noticed the same with a couple of my writer friends. I’d begun to wonder if maybe I had the wrong hero so it’s good to hear you have this problem as well. Maybe it’s because we love connected books, hence we create connections subconsciously.

    • Amy Atwell says:

      Marley, thanks for stopping by. How cool that you wanted to be a Navy pilot (the things I learn on blogs!). And you’re right, sometimes the wingman needs to be tamed or toned down. I’m not sure I’ve ever worried that I had the wrong hero for the current story, but I have worried that the current hero might be overshadowed by the mystery of the wingman. It’s such a fine balancing act!

  32. Amy Atwell says:

    And we have a winner!! Announcing that Stacey won the drawing for the $25 gift card. Stacey, congrats! I’ll be in touch to find out whether you want a gift certificate from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Thanks all for discussing Wingmen with me!!

  33. Thanks, Amy!!! I can order myself more books! And it’s okay that I have to wait, because I have no doubt the sisters’ books will be just as good. 🙂

  34. Pamk says:

    Tony from cynthia Eden hunter series. He rocked in Eternal Flame

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