August 15, 2013
Living In The Shadows—The Fate of Secondary Characters
I was watching a movie the other night that looked like it had promise. The first ten minutes got me interested and the main character was intriguing. And then I met the rest of the cast. With only one exception, they were dull, flat, cliched, and otherwise boring. It reminded me that I’ve read far too many books that fell victim to the same problem, and that got me thinking about the whole process of character development and how it affects the story.
Characters Are The Story
A good plot and good storytelling can carry a book or movie for a while, but it takes a cast of great characters to make it memorable. Too often writers spend all of their energy developing the primary characters and then they toss in the others without much thought. It’s always been my opinion that while a great villain or protagonist can make for an interesting story, it’s the supporting cast that makes it unforgettable.
Think of movies like Casablanca, The Usual Suspects, The Godfather, or Lonesome Dove. The characters played by Bogart, Spacey, Brando, and Duvall and Jones, were all great characters, but without the supporting cast those movies would not have had the impact they did. The supporting cast for Lonesome Dove was so great that I can’t imagine the movie with anyone else—in any of the roles. Who else could have played Blue Duck, Jake, Pea, Laurie, or Sheriff July Johnson. The list can go all the way down to the men on the whiskey boat. There were no fill ins, no cardboard characters. And how about Game of Thrones? An argument could be made that the entire cast is comprised of secondary characters. Or stars, depending on how you look at it.
Before you say, yes, it was great acting or great casting, remember that the characters were developed by the writers—writers who spent a lot of time on each and every one of those characters. It’s not easy to create strong secondary characters, especially ones who might only get a few pages of time in the book. To make them memorable they have to stand out, but not in a fake or outlandish way.
Share The Love
When you’re writing a story, don’t be afraid to let the secondary characters shine. Give them the same love and attention you put into the hero or villain. Make them irreplaceable. Let them steal the show a few times. The worst that can happen is readers might say, “Damn she makes a great supporting cast!”
When you can do that with your writing—come up with a cast of characters that are irreplaceable—then you’ve got the makings of a great story.
Ciao, and thanks for stopping by,
Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of:
No Mistakes Resumes
Murder Takes Time
Murder Has Consequences
A Bullet For Carlos
He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”
Who are your favorite secondary characters?