They are more important than you think. It’s a lesson I learned while writing my historical mystery novels, and I’m applying it in my hard-boiled detective series. Yes, you need a good protagonist—but the supporting cast is just as important.
When I decided to write about a reluctant pirate who does some sleuthing as he tries to escape the pirate life, I focused on the protagonist. How did Spider John became a pirate, why does he want out of that life, where he was born, what does he like to eat, and so on.
But when I do book appearances or hear from readers, who do people ask about? Usually not Spider:
“Is Hob going to be in the next book?”
“Oh my God, I love Odin! He’s so funny!”
“I want a story featuring Spider and his friend Ezra when they were younger!”
Those are supporting characters I did not yet have in mind when I typed the first words of “The Bloody Black Flag.” I had a vague notion of Ezra’s superstitious personality, but that’s all. Hob, the young swashbuckler with dreams of glory, was not yet in my mind, nor was Odin, the one-eyed ancient mariner who lies as often as he breathes and tells one outrageous tall tale after another. I created those characters on the fly, but readers really like them.
It happened again when one of the publishers of my upcoming detective series said she “really loved” my supporting characters and hoped I would bring them back in subsequent books. (I had plans for two of them, and immediately made plans for the one she mentioned by name. I can take a hint.)
Such reactions lead me to think I can provide useful insight into strong supporting characters and how they can shape your novel. My way isn’t the only way, of course. Writing fiction is part science, part art. Consider this more discussion than a lecture, and use what you will.
Dialogue Beats Exposition
If your protagonist is a no-nonsense military veteran, surround her with peaceniks, practical jokers, and intellectuals. This will allow you to use dialogue to explore your hero’s options, or perhaps express reactions your readers might have to the hero’s rash plans or quiet courage. There are times for focusing on your hero’s introspection, of course, but in most cases, conversations are a more interesting and dramatic way to push the story forward. Think of all the wonderful discussions Holmes has with Watson as he explains how he deduces things, then imagine those instead as mere rumination within the great detective’s skull. Fascinating, probably, but it no doubt would take a great many more words on the writer’s part and would involve only the voice of Holmes. Having a supporting character ask key questions that your hero can answer—or not—is an economical and engaging way to move things along.
Supporting Characters Need Goals
Supporting characters can enrich your novel in ways you might not expect if you envision them as human beings in their own right. Their entire existence should not revolve around the protagonist’s needs to converse out loud or to assign someone to do the boring stuff. No, no, no. Think about your supporting characters as deeply as you think about your protagonist. They should have goals. They should have attitudes. They should be their own free agents, and their wants and needs should not be tied exclusively to those of your hero.
Strong minor characters, of course, will complicate your life as a writer. Suppose your hero says, “Hey, Joe, I need you to dig through all the real estate transactions reported in the local newspaper for December for any that involve tracts near Westlake Estates.” A cookie-cutter support character will do exactly that. A character portrayed as an actual human being might instead say, “Screw that. I have a date tonight, and if it goes the way I want, I’ll perhaps have another date tomorrow. Do your own research.”
It is up to the author, of course, to figure out how to resolve such conflicts, but you get the point. Real human beings rarely exist merely to serve the desires of a protagonist or to make the author’s life easier. Real human beings complicate things and, more importantly, are far more fun to read about.
Enrich Stories in Unexpected Ways
I will now share a technique that might explain why readers like my supporting characters. It is a technique that will occasionally give you fits as a writer who has a plot to follow, but will perhaps lead you to story elements and character revelations that never showed up in your outline—and thus to a richer story.
The technique is simple. After I write a chapter or a crucial scene, I walk away from the keyboard. I then spend my time envisioning the same chapter from the point of view of each supporting character. I know how my protagonist relates to what goes on in that chapter, but what do my minor characters think about it? How will they react?
This sometimes leads to wonderful moments and sends my plot off in unexpected directions, which, frankly, is ultimately more realistic than a plot that just follows my authorial wishes.
An example: I once had Spider John send the young swashbuckler Hob to search sea chests for a clue that might explain mysterious goings-on aboard the ship. As an author, my soul purpose was to have my amateur sleuth acquire the needed information in an efficient way. Hob was, according to my outline, supposed to just go get the clue and bring it back to Spider.
Simple, right? Well, the clue was a treasure map, and when I ran that chapter through my head again from the point of view of Hob—who wants nothing more than to discover pirate gold—things got complicated. Spider now knew what was driving mysterious behavior, but Hob now had his own aspirations, and Hob’s plans and Spider’s went in totally opposite directions.
This made me rethink the rest of my book in ways I had not planned, but ... I think it ended up being a better book.
The technique occasionally forces me to spend several days trying to resolve the conflicts before I can continue working on the damned book. But when readers ask me—or beg me— to make sure Hob is in the next book, well ... the mental gymnastics are worth it.