Monday, June 13, 2011

The Importance of Supporting Characters

Throughout my life I've felt like a supporting character.  My existence has seemingly revolved around someone else's story.  My only purpose: to make MC (main character) A, MC B, and MC C's lives easier.  This realization first came to me when I was in middle school and found myself befriended by the cute boys solely for the purpose of acting as an intermediary between them and my cuter, more interesting friends.  More than a decade later, little in that respect has changed except my realization that being the supporting character in life isn't all that bad.  In fact, if anything it's given me a perspective on life I couldn't have possibly gained if I'd been the princess in my own fairy tale.

Supporting characters are too often treated like red-headed stepchildren in novels even though, most of the time, they can be the more interesting characters.  To me, a well-written sidekick is akin to putting sugar in your cereal. Before it's added, your Wheaties are boring, bland; but, with its inclusion, your senses come alive and you crave more.

There are ways in which I believe an author should approach the development of their supporting characters.  A few of those ways are outlined below:

Be the Yin to your MC's Yang--Your sidekicks should complement the star of the show in every conceivable way.  If your MC is an introvert, the members of your supporting cast need to be their entertaining and extroverted counterparts.  Readers love conflict.  Why else do you think Maury Povich and The Jerry Springer Show have been so successful?  No one finds two people getting along while they hold hands and sing Kumbaya to be even remotely interesting.  They want to sit on the sidelines watching the shit hit the fan as they cradle buckets of popcorn in their laps chanting, "fight, fight, fight," over and over again in their heads.  Your supporting characters need to add that extra dash of conflict without behaving as though they're the marionettes to the MC puppeteer.  A shining example of this is occurs in the novel Something Borrowed.  MC Rachel is an introverted, socially awkward, self-described doormat to her best friend, Darcy. Breathtakingly beautiful Darcy is boisterous, loud, charming, and attracts men with the ease of a modern-day Marilyn Monroe. They're best friends yet, through a good share of the book, Rachel loathes the ground Darcy treads upon.  The whole concept works beautifully together.  Darcy's flaws enhance Rachel's strengths and vice versa adding just the right amount of intrigue to keep you turning the pages (or clicking a button if you're a Kindle reader) no matter which side of the fence you're on.

Give them substance--If it's one thing I hate, it's those characters created with far less attention to detail than the MCs.  True, without the MCs, you don't have a plot and without a plot you've got nothing.  Still, there's only so far George the ladies man and Stella the comically funny, dowdy Sandra Dee can carry said plot before your readers crave introduction to Rodrigo the gardner or Valerie the tart hell-bent on taming George.  It's imperative your supporting cast be just as interesting, just as well-thought-out as your MCs.  Give them a back story, a leg to stand on.  What motivates them? Breathe as much life into them as you do your MCs and watch as your story takes on a life of its own.

Snappy dialogue--Witty dialogue can keep even a so-so plot afloat--granted, only for so long.  I put a lot of emphasis on dialogue, both in my writing and in the writing of others.  Although I love well-written, humorous and/or poetic narratives, dialogue tends to drive the story along more smoothly, braking when necessary and putting the pedal to the metal where warranted.  Even if I don't particularly care for the character, if they know just when to let the zingers fly, it endears them to me more.  An example of this is Gomez from The Time Traveler's Wife.  Gomez was, well, slimy.  Those who've read the book know exactly what I'm talking about while those who've only seen the movie are now scratching their heads (I'm assuming the movie left this particular scene out as not to tarnish Claire).  Anyway, Gomez was an absolute riot and, although I found him to be somewhat of  a creeper, I always brightened a tiny bit when he entered back into the picture.

Make them unique--A best friend is supposed to put you in your place when you eff up.  At least, a good friend will.  If the MC is doing something outrageous, instead of just going along for the ride, the supporting characters need to step up--grow balls if you will--and attempt to steer the ship.  Don't make them subordinate "yes men" or proverbial Boo Boos ("I don't think that's a good idea, Yogi.  Wait, you're going to do it anyway?  Oh, okay.").  Allow your supporting cast to shine. Make them the expressway to your MC's solution and not the enabler to their addiction.

Role reversal--When one of your second string wonders comes out of left field and completely blows one out of the park, it's a thing of beauty. Not only does it tend to surprise the reader, but the author as well.  Give your supporting characters a different role.  Make them even more antagonizing than your antagonist or completely steal your MC's thunder.  Not only will this make your book stand out from the usual cookie cutter novels but it will add an extra ounce of intrigue and entertainment that any reader will appreciate.

Make them make the stars of the show--I don't know about you, but when I watch a movie--usually any movie--I find myself more interested in the supporting cast than I do the main characters.  Aside from alive, where would Romeo and Juliet be without their quarrelling families?  What would Wonderland be like without the plethora of freaks Alice encounters?  Most of the time I find the MCs to be whiny, brooding, one-dimensional, and frankly, just plain boring.  Take Water for Elephants, for example.  It took me a while--a very long, long while--to actually like young Jacob Jankowski.  Old Jacob, however, was a riot.  It's as though the extra seventy years he ages in the story allowed for his personality to ripen. Like a fine wine, he hit the spot in the nursing home scenes (which were unfortunately cut out of the movie). Marlena, on the other hand, I NEVER became a fan of. She was dull and way too complacent with the way August treated her. Had the story revolved mainly around those two characters, I probably wouldn't have been able to finish it at all.  Then enter Walter aka "Kinko", Camel, and yes, the devil himself, August.  Their presence added all the drama, humor and crazy any book needs to make it a best seller.

There's my two cents when it comes to creating endearing characters.  If you have any of your own, I'd love to hear from you.

FYI-My next post will mark my 100th post.  *Throws confetti into the air then rushes to find a vacuum*  Of course, of those 100, only maybe the last 20 or so are actually worth reading.  Still, I count them.  With that being the case, I'm contemplating doing a giveaway after my 100th post or after my 100th follower.  Since I can't decide, I'm letting you have the floor here.  Should I wait until I rack up a triple digit following (which may take us into 2012) or triple digit posts?  What do you want to see given away?  Books from my personal shelf?  A B&N gift card?  A hodgepodge of literary wonders?  I'd love your opinion on this so by all means spout off.


K.D. Lum said...

Great post! I tend to fall in love with supporting characters, in my own books and others, so I DEF agree that they're important.

Jacquelyn said...

Great points!

I love developing the voices of my supporting cast and having them take over from time to time. :)

Sophie Li said...

Two-Thumbs-Up post! I think sometimes I fall absolutely head-over-heels for a story based on the character dynamics rather than any single character. So yeah don't forget the supporting cast.

PS - oooo I like that writer's tip thing-a-ma-bob. I may just have to borrow that.

linda said...

Thanks for the great post! I agree that the supporting cast is important, but I'm not quite sure about making them the stars of the show. If I don't absolutely fall in love with the MCs, the book won't make the list of my favorites. Probably why I didn't like Water for Elephants as much as I hoped to -- like you, I couldn't connect with young Jacob and Marlena, though I agree that the old Jacob was awesome!

Laurel Mayer said...

So true! I agree with K.D. that it's easy to fall in love with supporting characters. I find my own so endearing, and they are even more fun to develop. Thanks for the really enjoyable post!

Melanie_McCullough said...

Awesome post! I love it. It's so true. Some of my favorite characters in my novels are my supporting characters.

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Thank you for the comments ladies! I'm glad to hear that others share my point of view from time to time. :-)

Linda--I thought I was the ONLY one who hated Jacob. I'm glad to know I'm not alone!

Jennifer said...

I do agree that supporting characters are important, but they won't save a dull MC - not for me. I've read more than a few books where I would have preferred to follow a supporting character. Someone just gave me Water for Elephangs to I'm nervous to open it.

theemptypen said...

Absolutely! The people you surround yourself with say a lot about you...I think the true can be said of MCs. If their entourage is dull, yikes!

I watched True Blood before I read the book. I loved the minor characters and was crestfallen that they weren't more (or at all) in the book. I almost stopped reading.

I also almost stopped reading The Time Traveller's Wife because of Gomez! Ug, I hated him so much!

Like Water for Elephants is on my to read list but, like Jennifer, now I
m nervous!

sycamoremeadows said...

Hmmm...I really enjoyed this post. Supporting characters are sometimes under-rated when it comes to writing our novels. I know I'm guilty of getting so wrapped up in the main characters that I forget to give the required depth that the others need. And while I was reading, it also made me proud of the characters I know I've gotten right. I am going to bookmark this post - I think it's a great read for all authors!! :)

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Jennifer and theemptypen--Thank you for dropping by! *waves* Don't be worried about my negative Water For Elephants review. I'm sure you may think differently as I'm pretty picky when it comes to MCs. ;-)

Shawna- *HUGS* How have you been? I'm glad you liked it! :-)