No matter how compelling your protagonist, no matter how thrilling their quest, and no matter how daunting the challenges, your story needs support. You need other voices, other perspectives—in short, other characters. Not “extras” for crowd scenes. Certainly NOT cheerleaders. See also: the Bechdel test.
No, you need real people with real lives, who challenge, brace, and (at times) impede your protagonist’s journey. In short, your supporting players will do a lot of work in your story. They will also enrich the readers’ experience.
John Sanford’s Detective Lucas Davenport is a complex protagonist bordering on “anti-hero” status. So, he’s also an industrial-sized anal cavity. However his friends, Sister Elle Kruger and undercover cop Dale Capslock, humanize Davenport. They focus him and challenge him. Occasionally, they endure him right along with us.
Supporting characters often round out your story in ways that your protag and/or antag cannot. A scribble sib of mine wrote a fantastic fish-out-of-water story about a young girl traveling to her ancestral home, where all she understands is the language and just barely that. She is the readers’ lens on forbidden love, deadly politics, and generational class/gender dynamics. However another girl (who the protag becomes fast friends with) is our visceral connection to all that the character witnesses.
More than just straight men or eye candy
One of the reasons Sherlock Holmes still resonates with so many readers is the rich cast of characters who support Doyle’s consulting detective. Doctor Watson, the Baker Street Irregulars, and even Mrs. Hudson add depth to Holmes' shallow life. One of the reasons that the imitators fade to obscurity is a lack of side men/women to pick up the beat for their one-note character. Narrative cardboard cutouts spouting exposition or serving as dames in distress are NOT supporting characters. They are devices.
So, the Bechdel test...
The Bechdel-Warren test is the measure of female characters and/or women’s agency in fiction. Or, succinctly, how much do the women stand around talking about the men in the story? Look at some “highly acclaimed” books and movies with female characters and you’ll most likely be shocked at how often the only purpose for a woman in the story is to provide exposition or serve as cheerleaders or provide motivation. Note: while not exclusive to men, these depictions are most common in male-produced fiction.
In Caleb Carr’s The Alienist Sara Howard is not standing around waxing poetic about the titular character, Laszlo Kreizler’s greatness. Nor does she really talk about him or our narrator John Moore, at all. She not the “love” interest. Sara wants to be the first female police officer in the New York Police Department. Her conversation is about the investigation they are ALL conducting.
Your characters, (all of your characters) should have a want independent of the protag, even if not stated. In short, they should also have an identity. The difference between supporting characters/subplots and sidekicks/scenarios is agency and ambition. When Dennis Potter’s Philip Marlow, (The Singing Detective is a masterpiece of storytelling, the Mel Gibson remake is a crime against drama) is caught in a fever-delusion shootout, he learns that the hitmen are after him because he never gave them names in the stories he wrote. So, yeah, don’t do that.
This transcends genre
Delilah Abraham is indispensable to what works in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. More than the comic relief, Dee is Stella Payne’s reality check in Jamaica, (finding a life apart from what we do to live) and back home (when the fairytale comes to an end and we have to live with the direction our heart takes us). She is the adult in the room because she has interests, goals, and problems that have nothing to do with Stella.
Donald Westlake/Richard Stark’s taciturn heister, Parker works with men and women who, just like him, are in the game to support their dreams. Alan Grofield slacks Parker up on numerous scores and steals to support his addiction. Sandra Loscalzo steals to support her girlfriend and their daughter. Parker is a black-and-white character who is anything but compelling. Without his companions to colorize the world he moves through we’d quickly grow bored with him.
Like Parker, Thomas Magnum is not a nice guy. He’s pushy, self-centered, and that user-friend we all have who always shows up in need of a favor but are never there to help out on moving day. Unlike Parker, Magnum is flashy, funny, and cute as a mustachioed kitten. But he is as shallow as a kiddy pool without his friends. T.C., Rick, and Higgins are more than sidekicks. T.C. is a businessman, a Marine reservist, and he coaches at-risk kids. He yearns for a family while he continues to battle PTSD. Likewise, Rick Wright is desperately trying to recreate himself as gentleman-entrepreneur after an iffy upbringing and the horrors of war. Higgins is a cast-off aristocrat living as a majordomo after a lifetime of loss and regret. These men humanize Magnum and elevate him above superficial cad.
So if your story reads flat, check your cliqua, (gang) for what’s going on with them. Maybe instead of just a guy named “Bob,” who flies the plane, you need a hotshot pilot with a massive debt to a deadly gangster. Or, maybe you got a true-blue paladin, (not named “Bob”) who fades into the shrubbery when a battle isn’t afoot? What say he harbors an identity and destiny WAY beyond bodyguard/guide? Most importantly, that girl-Friday in your gothic mood-piece—who is NOT the romantic interest—might just be the smartest, most courageous player at the chessboard.
For those wondering about those examples: Han Solo, Aragorn, and Marian Halcombe. So, yeah, each of the “what-ifs” cited are based on actual supporting characters who transformed the story and added gravity beyond the baggage our protags carried. Wade into the rabble. You’ll be surprised what may spark your fancy.
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