|Erika in "Underworld" |
Some of my early critiques of my novellas were about my supporting characters; that they didn’t stand out enough as individuals and didn’t have enough to do. I don’t argue with this; my stories are not epics; therefore, the cast of developed characters is tight. But what is the function of supporting characters?
Supporting characters, by definition “support” the main character, to state the obvious. Sometimes supporting characters steal the show, especially in films. Often we see someone in stories to be “the girl” or “the wife” or “the family” of the main character. These characters help ground the main character and make he/she more believable, especially, but not limited to mainstream literary works, such as murder mysteries or legal thrillers. The classic cliché is the potential endangerment of the beloved family, thus challenging the protagonist to his/her fullest potential, risking it all for those loved most.
But supporting characters do not have to be sidekicks, assistants, or comic reliefs to main characters. I like supporting characters that tilt the story one way or another. In good writing, to take a character with a small part do a big deed that turns the whole story to me is bigger than the main character carrying the entire load. Another way to put it is to have the supporting character be the “wild card” whose actions affect the actions of the main character. These smaller roles may/may not be protagonists either, many may have plans of his/her own and “help” the main character for selfish/noble means.
I do get concerned with the number of characters, and take note when reviewers state confusion that I may have too many of them. After reading George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” my worries of too many characters are long passed, but it’s true that every character does need to serve a purpose in the story regardless of brevity. While I believe the rule stands about the audience must lock into the main character on some level, the supporting characters, when used well, make a huge difference with a small part. Now go forth, new authors, write something awesome with great supporting characters, and tweet us about it.