If protagonists and antagonists are the heart and soul of your book, then supporting characters are its lifeblood. They keep things flowing. They energize your manuscript, give it life and meaning. Without them you’d have nothing more than a couple of organs going at each other, a knockdown drag out fight with no audience and no significance.
Readers inevitably (and perhaps unconsciously) select a supporting character to act as their eyes and ears to the goings on of the story. In the Sherlock Holmes tales, we are Watson, and Watson is us. His responses to Sherlock are our responses.
In scary movies, the minor characters (victims) represent us by their terrified reactions to the killers.
Okay, that’s enough metaphor. The point is that supporting characters provide your readers with a window into the story, and then a lifeline to the meat and potatoes of your tale.
Whenever a minor character watches your MC with wary eyes, or becomes furious with something your MC says or does, this lends credibility to your novel and helps the reader engage with the story. A reader will see your supporting characters’ response to the MC or villain, and commiserate.
Congratulations, you have just brought your reader into the book by manipulating their heartstrings. Occasionally give those buggers a little twang. But don’t make the fatal mistake of constantly manipulating your audience. Readers are intelligent people; they know when an author is pulling the strings a little too much.
Supporting Characters add Depth to the MC
The other side of that two-faced mirror that is ‘supporting characters’ is their usefulness in adding depth to your MC and villain. Without other people around to react to the uniqueness and heroics of your MC and to the distinctiveness and the atrocities of your villain, they will fall flat. You need perspective. Without a kidnap victim around to respond to him, having your villain get away with murder will be like a plane speeding by, but without a background to lend relative emotion to its movements.
Supporting characters (specifically, their catalogue of responses, from horrified shock to humorous mockery) add depth to your MC and villain. They can do this in any number of ways. All that matters is that you have them posted discreetly but visibly in the scene, where they may react to the actions of your main stars without intruding.
This ‘background’ nature of your supporting cast is always necessary. But sometimes it’s fun (and it can be downright delightful) to have a minor character steal the scene. Few things are more enjoyable than being surprised by the appearance of a unique underling saying or doing something totally unexpected. (I do this alot in my Mythcorp books).
This rare gem of a phenomenon is worth exploring on its own. While practicing the subtle art of writing supporting characters, you might also let your mind wander to great scene-stealing minor roles. Until next time, God bless, and keep writing!