The importance of secondary characters; 'who' vs. 'whom'
Published: August 17, 2010
Q: I’m writing a short story in which a secondary character is important to the plot but is only in one short scene. Is that OK?
A: Literature is rife with characters that make a large splash with just one dive. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s business associate, appears only briefly, but his presence sheds light on the seedy side of things, and we infer that this is where Gatsby earned his fortune.
Don’t worry how many appearances a minor character makes. Instead focus on his or her influence. In some scenarios, the minor character may get a bit of time on the page. Let’s say Crystal and Frank are getting married in three days. Crystal’s ex-husband, Hammond, takes her to lunch, and their conversation makes Crystal doubt her decision to marry Frank. Hammond may only appear in that one scene—which might be a lengthy scene—but his presence is felt throughout the story. That night, Crystal reconsiders Hammond’s words, gestures and actions, parsing them for meaning. She thinks about their blissful trip to the Bahamas while she is finalizing the seating arrangements for the wedding with her future mother-in-law. She dials Hammond’s number the night before the wedding, but hangs up before he answers. As she walks up the aisle, she scans the crowd for Hammond. In fact, her response to his absence—relief or disappointment—may be the very climax of the story.
In other scenarios, the important secondary character may have a less prominent—but still pointed—presence. Let’s say Linda hasn’t spoken to her sister, Grace, in over a year. Linda always felt belittled by Grace, overwhelmed by Grace’s anger toward her. Last time they spoke, Grace stole eighty dollars from Linda and borrowed her car and left it at the state border three hours away. Linda considers checking up on her sister after a call from Grace’s landlord about past due rent. On the day she plans to visit, Linda stops for lunch at an outdoor café. She witnesses an angry man yelling at a timid young waiter. She’s unsettled by this; later the incident comes to mind as she sits in her car outside Grace’s apartment building. She thinks of the angry man’s red face, of the weight of this anger on the young waiter’s shoulders. This makes her decide to drive away from her sister’s apartment. Linda’s time with the angry man and the waiter is fleeting. She doesn’t even interact with them. But the interaction between the angry man and the waiter influences a major choice for Linda.
Interestingly, some stories have important characters that never appear. Susan Glaspell’s short story “A Jury of Her Peers” tells the story of two women in the kitchen of Minnie Wright, a woman suspected of murdering her husband. The women in the kitchen find compelling evidence of Minnie’s guilt and they must decide whether to reveal their findings. The character of Minnie—her personality, actions and emotions—is crucial to the women understanding the evidence in front of them, yet Minnie sits in jail, unseen, as the story unfolds in her kitchen.
Q: In a previous column ("Writing slumps; showing your work to others") you write, "It is also useful to consider who you show your work to." Shouldn’t you have used whom instead of who? Am I missing some obscure rule or was this just an oversight?
A: Yes, this was an oversight and I’m glad you wrote in so we can tackle the sticky topic of who versus whom.
This grammar issue is one that seems to invite the most divided response. Some are rabid about correct usage regardless of how it changes the tone of the sentence and others simply avoid using whom at all costs. These latter folks aren’t alone. In his column “On Language” in The New York Times Magazine, William Safire wrote:
The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence. This keeps a huge section of the hard disk of your mind available for baseball averages.
Linguists and observers of language have been predicting the disappearance of whom since the late1800s. But it’s still around and we all might as well know how and when to use it.
Here’s the short answer: Use who when the pronoun acts as a subject. Use whom when it acts as an object. Maybe that just confuses things further. Let’s back up.
The subject of a sentence is the person, object or place that is doing the action:
Leslie hit the ball twice.
Denver is beautiful.
The object is acted upon.
Fran slammed the door.
I loathe you.
So, use who when you’re replacing the subject of the sentence:
Who hit the ball twice?
Use whom when replacing the object of the sentence:
You loathe whom?
When sentences get more complex, remember that you’re looking for the pronoun’s role—as subject or object—within the clause. The italicized phrase below is the clause:
Freddy feels like a marathon runner who finally crossed the finish line. In the clause, the pronoun takes the place of the subject, Freddy.
A final piece of advice: always double-check your usage for careless mistakes. Thanks to this close reader for keeping me on my toes.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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