The Importance of Supporting Characters
Last week we looked at how you create a cast of supporting characters, and this week we continue the theme by looking at just how important those supporting characters are.
Nothing happens in any story without the secondary characters getting involved on many different levels. They contribute more to any story than just “being in the background”. Their importance shouldn’t be ignored – they don’t just interact with the main characters or provide a foil, but instead they help advance the plot, they move the story forward, carry subplots, heighten conflict, reveal information and do much more.
Supporting characters also need to be vivid – they won’t share the same amount of time in the spotlight as your protagonist and antagonist – so they need to reflect real people, they should be intriguing and interesting enough for the reader to care about them.
It’s surprising just how some secondary characters shoulder more story than you think. If done correctly, they help to make the story rather than hinder or cause problems with it. Imagine a story without them. Unless you are actually writing a story with just one character, the world that your protagonist inhabits will be a pretty lifeless one. There would be little tension, little conflict, no subplots, little character development...in fact, there wouldn’t be much at all.
That’s why we need minor characters to fill those voids and help the plot evolve.
The characters you create are always acting and reacting to what is happening, either directly with the protagonist/antagonist, or through subplots, which means they are brilliant at advancing the plot, which they do through their dialogue and their actions. That’s because they are often the cause of tension and conflict, which every writer knows is paramount to moving a story forward.
Their appearance also allows the main character to interact and become involved with them in so many ways and on so many levels, so the plot always gets to move forward.
But the single most important reason we have secondary characters is to help tell the story and advance the plot.
Often writers assign subplots to secondary characters, or subplots that involve an important secondary character and the protagonist. Their role is vital, because a main character can only do so much within the main story arc, so subplots are an excellent way of giving more for the reader.
There may be a romance side story with the hero and the secondary character – this is an often used subplot. There could be an instance where a secondary character plots against the main character. Subplots like these, with secondary characters at the helm, help to create tension and move the story forward.
They Help Develop Themes
Secondary characters are a rich resource - they engage one another, they interact with the main characters and with the plot to enhance and bring forward the themes of any novel. Through them, the writer can highlight those themes.
For example, in a story about war, if two secondary characters are punished in a prison camp while attempting to help the main character to escape, their ordeal may highlight the themes of cruelty and desperation. Or there could be a minor character that surprises the main character with an act of generosity to help him out, thus bringing to light the theme of kindness. Other secondary characters might be callous or mean in order to show the theme of evil.
That’s how easy it is for secondary characters to help show the reader the themes of the novel. Writers use their minor characters effectively and cleverly, so much so that the reader doesn’t even notice, but they understand the development of the secondary characters and they understand the themes.
They Heighten Conflict
Secondary characters are defined by their actions; they are often the root cause of conflict because they can be confrontational, deceptive, duplicitous or even horrible with the relationship between other characters.
Writers use minor characters to spark off others, to lay the foundations to further conflict and tension or to help foreshadow events. They can cause arguments or disagreements, they can set off a chain of events, they can be like a naughty toddler, out to cause mayhem. Conversely, they can also be helpful and kind and bring positive change to the main character.
They can be so useful in setting up certain important scenes, and not all secondary characters are the same. They are all as individual as us.
The main character needs secondary characters for interaction. Actions and reactions are important – what characters do and how they react push the story along and give it momentum. And by doing that, they also help the main character develop as they story unfolds; they add contrast and depth and add layers to the underlying story, so they are much more than just making up the numbers.
They work with your main character, rather than overshadow him or her. Their actions and reactions help develop all your characters in direct relation to the story arc.
They Reveal Information
Main characters can’t do everything the story demands of them, which is why we have secondary characters to do that for them, and one of the ways to use these characters is to provide or feed useful information to the reader.
In other words, they are a great way to reveal certain things, to drop hints or to foreshadow. They do this through direct actions, their dialogue or their interactions with the main character.
Some of the most memorable supporting characters leave their mark because they’re so well written and the writer has used them so well. Think of Red in the Shawshank Redemption. What about Orr in relation to Yossarian in Catch-22, Sirius Black in the Harry Potter books, or young Beth, in Little Women?
They are characters we love and loathe in equal measure, yet they all make us remember them. Minor characters can make a big impact, so never forget their importance.
Next week: How to avoid a mid-story crisis.