Lessons to Practice #15: The Critical Cast of Supporting Characters

Greetings! I thank you guys and gals for your patience as things went dark on my blog for the past week; I spent the last four days moving into my new apartment. It was definitely an eventful weekend! Fortunately, I got to spend most of it with my mom, who came in to town to help me lug my boxes and possessions up three — yes, three — flights of stairs. Talk about a workout! However, we managed to make this place feel like home. I’m really looking forward to getting back into my usual morning writing routine.


My new place is coming along rather nicely!

The Importance of Secondary Characters

Now that I’ve covered some basic groundwork for how to make a compelling protagonist, I’d like to segue into the rest of a fiction writer’s ensemble, AKA, the supporting characters.

I’ll go ahead and get my personal opinion out right away: I absolutely go googly-eyed for well-rounded supporting characters. Hell, their importance is in their title! Supporting characters. It really doesn’t get any more blatant than that. Still, the ways in which they support the main character — and the entire plot of your story — may not be clear right away. Let’s find that clarity.

Supporting the Overall Plot

No single main character or protagonist can sustain an entire story by themselves. Even in the starkest of tales, there are side characters who help our hero on their quest. For example, in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the father and son push one another through the barren wasteland of what was once the United States. The same is true for Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, another haunting post-apocalyptic tale in which a group of survivors must evade unseen creatures that spark homicidal madness in anyone who looks at them. Malerie is the hero we root for in Bird Box, and her trek to find a safe haven for herself and her two children is punctuated by the appearance of several loyal friends and twisted adversaries. Without these supporting characters, both stories would be largely devoid of narrative thrust and humanity.

The Road Broken Highway

Retrieved from https://www.malcolmrichardsauthor.com/blog/2016/5/2/books-that-inspire-me-the-road-by-cormac-mccarthy

Bird Box Main Characters

Retrieved from https://thesavvyreader.com/2014/06/02/review-bird-box-by-josh-malerman/

With the support of believable and complex secondary characters, your heroine is much more likely to grow in meaningful ways. Reading fiction closely mirrors our daily lives: we want to feel supported and understood by those closest to us, and thus revel in the presence of a group of characters who come to confide in and encourage one another. We want our protagonist to have a support network in their most difficult moments, and secondary characters fit the bill beautifully.

Secondary Characters as Thematic Extensions

In addition to making a work of fiction more compelling and engaging, secondary characters also serve to further flesh out your overall themes. It’s generally wise to make your minor characters distinctly different from your main character. This generates a substantial amount of conflict, which not only challenges your protagonist, but also makes your themes richer and more variegated. Nothing loses readers like the stereotypical good-versus-evil dichotomy, so be sure to keep them engaged by creating both positive and tumultuous moments between your hero and your secondaries.

How else might these other characters expound upon your themes? Aside from conflict, you can also create secondary characters who offer a novel perspective on the same issues your main character is struggling with. For example, in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie and Patrick develop a deep friendship that only grows more personal as they commiserate about the woes of dating and their own insecurities. However, Charlie finds himself drawing a line when Patrick begins to make romantic gestures towards him. It’s a heart-breaking dynamic that challenges their bond — and ultimately reminds us how heartbreak and self-doubt afflict everyone, no matter their sexual orientation or sense of humor.

Charlie and Patrick

Retrieved from https://chestnutfilm.wordpress.com/tag/the-perks-of-being-a-wallflower/

Creating the Perfect Foil

Finally, your secondary characters can become the perfect foils for your main character. However, in order to make a memorable antagonist, you have to give just as much thought and effort into developing them as you did for your main character. This can be challenging, especially because you, like all readers, want to fall back on despising the “evil villain.” Just remember: simple bad guys bore readers and weaken your overall story.

Here’s a good example: Jezzie, though sensual and supportive of Jacob Singer on the surface, also berates Jacob and exacerbates his hellish hallucinations in Adrian Lyne’s masterful psychological thriller, Jacob’s Ladder. Jezzie serves as an immediate roadblock to Jacob’s healing, stymying his research into the drug BZ, which the U.S. military gave Jacob and his squad members during their tour of Vietnam. Later on in the movie, she even begins to take on a more demonic air, downplaying the importance of Jacob mourning the death of his youngest son, Gabe. Ultimately, Jacob must reject Jezzie’s sexual advances and reckless abandon in order to make peace with his demons.

Jacob's Ladder

Retrieved from http://livefilms4u.blogspot.com/2015/04/jacobs-ladder-full-movie-720p-hd-free.html

In closing, your story stands to gain so much from the inclusion of a strong cast of supporting characters. Never forget that these individuals should be just as rich and complex as your protagonist, if not more so. Your readers will thank you for putting in that extra effort!


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