Writing Right with Dmitri: Supporting Characters
You're writing fiction. Or brushing up a good anecdote. Or telling a fact-based story about an individual. You've delineated a strong lead character. So far, so good. But what about the supporting cast? If you're not careful, the supporting characters will turn out flat. They'll exist merely to lob straight lines to the lead, or engage in idiot dialogue among themselves. You don't want to do that: you want to let them fly on their own.
Have you seen the US television series The Closer? I could say a lot of bad things about that show: the writing is uneven, so is the tone. The acting is superb, but the showrunner and writers appear to be ethically challenged, to put it mildly. But there is one thing they excel at: giving supporting cast members lots of cool things to do, and some wonderful dialogue. That's probably why they won awards for ensemble acting. Behind every successful actor are writers who know how to deliver on the dialogue.
Watch this minute of television. Sure, the camera's mostly on the lead. But notice how all the minor characters are contributing to the effectiveness of their boss's rant. The appearance of the two troublemakers, detective lieutenants Provenza and Flynn, in their baseball caps and jackets, is particularly funny in context. The plot was that the off-duty policemen discovered a dead body in Provenza's garage. Seeing that the body was already dead, and not going anywhere, and that they had skybox tickets to a major league baseball game, they decided to postpone reporting the crime….only to come back later and find that the body had been moved out of the garage…. Yes, that's good Stuff. It's even better as a way to build up the supporting characters.
Do you enjoy Sherlock? How much of that enjoyment is due to the supporting cast? Don't Dr Watson, Mrs Watson, Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade make up a lot of the series' strength? See what I mean? This doesn't only work for detective stories. Any story is better with a broader cast.
Here are some quick tips:
- Try, without padding their resumes too much, to give your supporting cast reasons for existing in the story. Think a bit about their backstories. No, you don't need to supply a printable CV. Just think about what makes them tick.
- Avoid clichés when possible. You have a receptionist to talk to? How would it be if she weren't: a gum-chewing blonde, a grating obsessive male, or a passive-aggressive older woman? How about someone equally relatable, but less 'true to type'?
- How about two characters together? They can talk to each other. The old Doctor Who series didn't have CGI, but it had great dialogue. There was a writer named Robert Holmes who specialised in creating pairs of entertaining supporting characters. Those in the know called them 'Holmes teams'.
- Remember that the main character is taking up a lot of the story's real estate. He/she/alien pronoun doesn't have to win all the time. Let the supporting cast score a few points now and again. You look generous when you do that, and the story looks richer.
- Keep in mind, also, that supporting characters do not have to be cooperative. They can kick up a fuss. They can place obstacles in the way of the tale. In fact, that's a good way to get your action moving. Remember that Closer episode? The dodgy actions of Provenza and Flynn not only introduced the storyline, but kept it going, because Brenda Leigh's need to protect her detectives from being sanctioned for illegal action eventually involves the whole squad in a complex coverup. Then, when they leave Sergeant Gabriel out of the loop, he makes things worse by being inquisitive…. As I said, I have issues with that show's morality, but none with the standard of its writing.
Oh, well, we might as well stick with gumshoes. This is what a minor character gets from Raymond Chandler:
A man named Nulty got the case, a lean-jawed sourpuss with long yellow hands which he kept folded over his kneecaps most of the time he talked to me. He was a detective-lieutenant attached to the 77th Street Division and we talked in a bare room with two small desks against opposite walls and room to move between them, if two people didn't try it at once. Dirty brown linoleum covered the floor and the smell of old cigar butts hung in the air. Nulty's shirt was frayed and his coat sleeves had been turned in at the cuffs. He looked poor enough to be honest, but he didn't look like a man who could deal with Moose Malloy…..
"What's in it for me?"
He spread his yellow hands sadly. His smile was as cunning as a broken mousetrap. "You been in jams with us boys before. Don't tell me no. I heard different. Next time it ain't doing you any harm to have a pal."
"What good is it going to do me?"
"Listen," Nulty urged. "I'm just a quiet guy. But any guy in the department can do you a lot of good."
Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
Nulty just there to move the plot along. But we get a pretty good idea of his history and outlook, and he helps us orient the detective in relation to the local police. Not bad for a few lines' work.
Attention paid to your minor players will pay off. For one thing, they'll be grateful, and reward you with plot ideas. For another, your story will gain the illusion of greater depth. Perspective is a technique not only known to the Renaissance masters. Even flash fiction can find a use for it.