Supporting characters better our understanding of the main character and the circumstances she finds herself in, whether long-term (I need to solve this homicide case) or short-term (I need a ham sandwich). And if your supporting characters aren’t working toward an understanding of the main character or situation in some way, you might ask yourself what they’re really doing there, hogging time and space in your book. Your novel isn’t an open house for complete strangers to walk through as they wish. Everything you spend time on must be for a reason, including those minor characters who appear to be simply passing through.
That said, your supporting cast can’t seem like they’re only hanging around to provide information or further the plot. Rather, your secondary characters, even the ones who appear in the book for only a couple of paragraphs and then are gone forever, must appear in those paragraphs as independent people with personalities, motivations and desires of their own … and you often have to accomplish this in just a few choice words or lines.
For example, let’s start with a simple premise and conflict—a man and woman on an uncomfortable dinner date—and consider what that situation calls for in terms of supporting characters. They’re at a restaurant and are unhappy with their relationship, for whatever reason, though the tension in the scene comes from their being unwilling or unable to express their unhappiness, from their silence and bottling it up. So a secondary character working with and against this problem might be a waitress who, unlike our two quietly suffering characters, comes over and tries to say everything. One who is simply trying to be cheery—and trying to make a sale—and whose fake outgoingness helps highlight our main characters’ quiet desperation. The waitress might not pick up on the fact that the two are having a fight of sorts and might start suggesting every dinner- or drink-for-two on the menu, clueless to the tension between them.
We’d find ways to deliver her character clearly from the way she speaks, acts, dresses—loud, overbearing, pieces of flair on her suspenders, lipstick on her teeth—and we’d see that she has a clear, simple motivation all
her own: taking an order and trying to push tonight’s special. But her actions in following through with the motivation give us a way of seeing the main characters and their predicament in fuller, if depressing, terms.
(Note, too, that we’d have even more minor characters in the scene—young couples in love, old couples in silence, an obnoxious kid’s birthday party—and that all of them, even though rendered quickly, would be serving the same function of showing our suffering couple more clearly.)
This is the case for every minor character you make part of your cast, whether the character comes in once to fulfill a specific function, and then leaves or becomes a recurring one, someone who plays an important role
in building the story as part of a subplot.
Rounding Flat Characters
If you find yourself having trouble seeing your characters, whether major or minor, as full people in their own right, here are a few questions you might ask to help nudge them in the right direction.
What’s the character’s internal motivation; what does he or she really want? This might particularly be a question to ask of a flat protagonist, the result of a main character who seems motivated by nothing but plot-level or external circumstances. Remember that your hero is also a person like you
or me … and consider what we’d feel in a similar situation. (And don’t forget that even minor characters have motivations, and lives, of their own.)
How might you locate a character’s internal motivation and conflict if they seem to be absent? If your character’s motivation seems purely external, perhaps as part of his obligation or job—if you’re writing a detective novel, and the character has simply taken on a new case—try to consider what it is about the character, personally, that informs his or her professional work, how it influences his ability to do the job, or speaks to the reason he entered this profession in the first place. Also consider how this particular job is different from yesterday’s job, or tomorrow’s, or last year’s. Presumably part of what makes this job or case different is that it is personally different, there’s something personally at stake. How might that be the case?
What peculiar traits might you highlight about the character to make him seem fuller? I don’t mean that giving a monocle and a handlebar moustache to a character automatically makes him full. Instead, consider what unusual or distinctive features might exist for your character naturally … and might help us see him or her.
Are you playing both with and against type? No character is 100 percent good or evil, kindhearted or callous, capable or clueless, so consider not only how to set up our expectation of character but also how to subvert that expectation, how to complicate our view of a character. Hannibal Lecter would be a lot of fun to share a glass of wine with, discussing art and music and philosophy and the finer things. So long as he didn’t kill and eat you.
How is the heart of the character, the motivation, evident in a work you admire? Consider this with any novel or work that means something to you, no matter the genre. Try looking back at the characters (major or minor) you find compelling and play armchair psychologist a bit, looking at how the external and internal motivation and conflict play with, or play off of, each other.
Staying on Track
If in the second act you find your novel veering off course either because a minor character has come in and tried to run the place, or because your minor characters seem to be doing nothing but sitting on your couch, eating your food, not really contributing, you should put them to the test: Determine why they’re there, if they can be brought in line somehow, or, if not, how you might excise them from the novel.
Minor characters who become personal “darlings” for the author can be very hard to kill, and often a writer will find some way to justify keeping around an inactive but favorite minor character based on very thin reasoning, such as saying that the character adds comic relief (yes, but comic relief to your depressing post-apocalyptic gothic revenge story?) or that the character adds a romantic element (yes, but does your chainsaw-murderer bipolar antihero really need a love interest?) or, or …
If an inactive supporting character does indeed seem to fulfill some function like this—but is otherwise inert—you might see if another better-established supporting character could fulfill that role just as easily. Or you might consider streamlining several supporting characters into just one who does the trick.
Ultimately who stays and goes is not up to you as the author but up to your story. When in doubt, try to listen to what the story is telling you to do and follow that advice; it’s almost always going to be right.
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