Your Novel’s Supporting Cast
Very few books are just about a protagonist and the antagonist. Most novels have characters that support the primary characters and help add to the drama of the story. Who are these supporting characters and what is their function?
What sleuth in a mystery doesn’t need a friend or relative with access to inside information? This character is often called the sidekick, and is probably the most important supporting character in many genres.
We spoke of the antagonist last week, and the tormentor is similar, but this person is different in that he or she is someone whom the protagonist spars but in some way often admires.
Conflict is the spice that makes characters come alive, and an adversary can cause the protagonist all kinds of interesting problems and complicate your story by throwing up roadblocks to the investigation.
In developing an adversary, remember it should be a character who’s positioned to thwart, annoy and generally get in your sleuth’s way. With an adversary in the story, the protagonist gets lots of opportunity to argue, struggle and in general show his mettle and ingenuity.
Fleshing out The Supporting Cast
A supporting character can be anyone in your sleuth’s life—a relative, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, a professional colleague; the local librarian, waitress, town mayor; even a pet pooch. A supporting character may get ensnared in the plot and land in moral peril, or even take a turn as a suspect. In a series, supporting characters return from book to book and can have ongoing stories of their own.
Supporting characters come with baggage too so pick yours carefully. Think about what all this means to the story line. If your sidekick is married, what’s his/her role in all this. Does he/she get jealous if there is a sexy suspect? If your protagonist has children, not only do you need information about these children, but also about their caregivers. Do they have a nanny or do they go to day care? A significant other? Be prepared to handle the inevitable attraction to that sexy suspect. Remember, if the antagonist has a dog, the dog needs to be walked twice a day which means that your antagonist will have to walk him regularly or hire a dog-walker.
Supporting characters give your character a life, but each one should also play a special role in the story. Supporting characters might start out as stereotypes: a devoted wife, a nagging mother-in-law, a bumbling assistant, a macho cop or a slimy lawyer. It’s OK to typecast supporting characters during the planning phase. When you get into the writing, if you want them to play bigger roles, you’ll want to push past the stereotype and flesh them out, turning them into complex characters who do things that surprise you—and, in turn, the reader.
Like subplots and backstories, you don’t want supporting characters to hog the spotlight. You don’t want bland, uninteresting characters either.
We’ve discussed many aspects of character sketches within a character bible as well as various types of characters including the protagonist, the antagonist, the sidekick and the tormentor. One thing we haven’t yet used is naming characters.
Give each supporting character a name to match the persona, and be careful to pick names that help the reader remember who’s who.
Nicknames are easy to remember, especially when they provide a snapshot reminder of the character’s personality or appearance. Throwing in some ethnicity makes a character’s name easy to remember, too. Avoid the dull and boring as well as the weirdly exotic.
It’s not easy for readers to keep all your characters straight, so help them out. Don’t give a character two first names like William Thomas, Stanley Raymond or Susan Frances. Vary the number of syllables in character names—it’s harder to confuse a Jane with a Stephanie than it is to confuse a Bob with a Hank. Pick names that don’t sound alike or start with the same letter. If your protagonist’s sister is Leanna, don’t name her best friend Lillian or Dana.
Create a list of names that you consider “keepers,” and add to it whenever you find a new one you like.
Minor characters should make an impression when they come on the scene, but not a big splash. It doesn’t matter that the character is tall or short, fat or thin, bald or long-haired. What matters is what he or she does. He delivers three lines of dialogue and gives the protagonist an all-important sym-card that moves the plot along.
A minor role is no place for a complex character. Don’t imbue one with a lot of mystery that your reader will expect you to explain. A name, a few quirky details, and a bit of action or dialogue are more effective than a long, drawn-out description in minor characters.
Remember that the world of your novel will also be full of walk-on characters who provide texture and realism. Each one may also have some small role in facilitating the plot, but for the most part, walk-on characters are there to make scenes feel authentic. When crafting your more important minor characters, don’t get carried away and forget that walk-ons should get no more than a sentence or two of introduction. They don’t need names, and a touch of description is plenty. Choose details that can be a kind of shorthand commentary on the neighborhood or context.
Used in this way, walk-ons remain as much elements of setting as they are characters—and that setting will be a fitting backdrop to help both your protagonist and your more important supporting characters stand out.
To Do This Week
Use this information that you have created about your characters and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas in character development, and fix those problems.
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As I read about these things which you and I do often, I am reminded of how much I love writing novels…the whole process is thoroughly enjoyable.
I agree! What I like best about writing fiction is that I get to escape to live vicariously through my characters.