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Saturday, November 23, 2013

#14 - What About The Supporting Characters? (HOWNTWAN)

This is the fourteenth article in the semi-comedic series, How Not To Write A Novel (HOWNTWAN). The first article in the series can be found here: What's Your Story About? Keep reading during the next couple months for the rest of the series.

14. What About The Supporting Characters?

Seriously? I thought I was reading a book about writing, and now there’s a whole article on supporting characters. Who cares about the minor characters? After all, there’s enough to worry about with the main characters and the bad guys. Adding a load of thought to character X and Character Y isn’t really helping me write my book.
I’ve heard this complaint before, and no doubt I’ll hear it again. Most authors don’t want to invest heavily in the minor characters. And I’m not suggesting they do for all of them. But I would suggest thinking about them to a certain degree. What is special about the characters your heroes meet? Are there some characters that help your hero, and some characters that hinder your hero? Do some of your supporting characters aid the bad guys? It’s important to spend time fleshing out these supporting characters a little. That way, when your main characters come across them, both of them will know how to react. And who knows, you may even end up promoting one or two of your supporting characters into main characters!
It may help to think back to a few of your favorite books and list out the supporting characters. Then write down what part they played in the overall plot of the book. I guarantee if the book was good, these characters had several key moments. And so it should be with your supporting characters, too. Recently, I’ve been listening to Lord Of The Rings on audiotape and it’s given me time to think a little about the style of the book and also the characters. I’m not sure exactly how many of the characters are supposed to be major, and how many are supposed to be minor. Obviously, Frodo is a major character, and so too is Gandalf. But what about Sam, and what about Gollum? They both have fairly big parts, but I’m not entirely sure they are at the protagonist / antagonist status. One of the characters, Sam, is a supporting character to Frodo, while the other, Gollum, is neither supporting nor particularly against Frodo. But both these characters are so well fleshed out, their actions play a big part in how Frodo reacts to and survives certain situations.
If all your supporting characters just turn up from time to time and do nothing except have a name and offer a quick sword fight, or provide a little side-track action, then you haven’t done a good job with them. Of course, some minor characters are more major than minor, and these do have names and all sorts of background ready made for them. The really minor characters many not even have a name, but we’re not really talking about these ones in this article.
In just the same way that scenery adds to the richness of a landscape, so too do supporting characters add to the richness of your protagonists. Perhaps your imperfect hero needs to rescue someone from the water and cannot swim, when along comes X and saves the day. Now, depending on whether X is a good or bad supporting character, can really impact how the book progresses. Is your hero now forced to make friends with X? Or are they jealous of X’s skills? All of a sudden you’ve got some extra built-in conflict that you can experiment with.
Whatever. I know you already told me, you’re writing a book that’s based on your life, only better. The whole point is to show the reader how wonderful you (the protagonist) are. The last thing you need is for them to show some love to a minor character. No, it’s much better to leave out the minor characters altogether and concentrate on the hero. After all, he’s the one who will win the day and the maiden’s heart. You’re the Indie Author, and the day job still puts money in the bank.

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