Think about how boring a story would be if there were only ‘main’ characters. No matter how well-written they may be, our stars of the show need a cast of supporting characters to round out a successful novel. Often times, these players can be one reason a story is so memorable, so as writers, we need to bring them to life with as much thought and care as our heroes and the villains.
One of the most exciting things about writing these characters is that you never know where they may take you. While some remain in the ‘helper’ roles of getting our main characters from point A to point B, sometimes you find one whose voice begs to be given a juicier role.
One of my recent favorites is Neville Longbottom. For the better part of the Harry Potter series, Neville is seen as just one of the tag along friends of Harry, Hermione and Ron. But by the end of the story, Neville is an integral character. In fact, his actions are destiny-shaping. Whether Rowling knew where she was going with his character from the beginning, or whether his voice just wouldn’t be quieted during her writing, Neville went from a bit player to being the “Other Chosen One.”
Minor characters are sprinkled through my novel, Oldsters. At the Avalon retirement center, there is Dr. Whitfield, and Carly, the medical center’s receptionist. During the group’s travels down Route 66, there are people met at the motels and restaurants. Even some of the main characters’ children, who we hear from sporadically, would be considered minor characters. I normally still do a character sketch for these folks – even though they may appear only a few times in the story. I need to know their motivation; and personally, I do like to have some sort of physical description of them in my head – even if I don’t use any description of them at all during my writing.
Secondary characters figure more prominently into the story, often serving as a catalyst for important events. And when things look like they won’t get resolved at all, a secondary character can sometimes step in and save the day. Just like Neville, who ends up actually handling what could be argued as the most important task in the books – beheading Nagini. His doing this doesn’t take anything away from Harry’s ‘hero’ status, and I like when people who seem to be on the fringe make a surprising contribution.
In Oldsters, I have a few secondary characters that play off my main group, including Avalon director Tilly, who is definitely invested in the five elderly people who leave her property without telling anyone, and Penn, the grandson who the group is descending upon in New Mexico.
Some of my voices are from the past, and I consider them an important part of the story. Lovers, friends and spouses, some of which have passed away, but that we hear from in a flashback. They are part of the story too.
Lastly, I have a wonderful character who starts out as someone we meet in a most inconspicuous manner, but who becomes a full-fledged secondary character by the end of the book. This voice wanted to be heard, and when I found a photo I fell in love with and used to start building the character, I was very happy with how easily this story unfolded.
Physical traits, mannerisms, faults, talents…all of these things and more go into good character development. Readers don’t want a hero that’s perfect, or a villain without an ounce of redemption or at least a reason we can see as the ‘why’ he became what he did. In the same way, our supporting cast should have some thought put behind them. They are often the ones that take us off of our perfectly plotted path, and down unexpected trails of great storytelling!