HOW TO DETERMINE THE ROLE OF SUPPORTING CHARACTERS
Supporting characters (SC) are the key to many great novels. Is it true that there are many great novels with just the one main character? Of course. But I’d say that the majority of novels have supporting roles, and if those roles are not significant, then thousands of words can be wasted on a person who doesn’t really matter. And here’s a guarantee: a good editor will force us to get rid of these worthless characters.
Let’s think about the purpose of the flying buttresses of old. These architectural feats have two purposes: support the building and be attractive. I’d like to think of our SC in much the same way. These characters should hold up the main character, and they have an appeal that catches the reader’s “eye”. Does this mean that the SC must be “good.” Of course not. But, this role should make the reader feel connected with that character also.
The SC should be there to uphold the main whenever he fails. If he wants to stray from the mission, the SC should be there to steer him back inline. The SC needs to be able to pull out traits within your main that otherwise would remain dormant.
Think about Peeta from The Hunger Games. Katnis would not have possessed the added dimension of questioning her relationship with Gale and striving to keep Peeta alive while fighting to survive herself. Peeta is designed in a way that’s clever. The mission did not rely on him, but without him, Katnis may not have been able to succeed. Her success rested solely with him: his charm and his poise made the crowds love both her and Peeta. And this affection helped them in the games.
Ask yourself whenever you are adding a SC a few questions:
1. Is this character necessary?
2. Can this character be embodied by another character?
3. How does this character support my main?
These questions help to give some meat to the SC. Think about your SC. Can the story go on without them? If it can, no matter how much you like that character, he or she may not be necessary.
Did you find something for that insignificant SC to do? Probably. But that doesn’t mean that another character could not have fulfilled the same job. We have to be selfish and selective about which characters we hire for our books.
For more insight, please read CHARACTERIZATIONABILITY.