I realize this post is a day late, but I have a good excuse: I forgot what day it was yesterday. As for it possibly being a week late, since I didn't post last week, I say that I was out of town. Also, I had graduated that weekend (congratulations to me) and sadly, the blog posts were a little further down on my list. I apologize if anyone was offended by my online absence. I hope to make up for it today.
Last time I posted I talked about the characters that are introducing themselves to me. That is still happening. Berzen, for example, is getting into a lot of trouble and I like him quite a lot. He's the kind of person who, if you leave him alone for a few minutes, will manage to cheat someone/make someone look like a fool/kiss a girl in front of a protective male/etc. and get chased down the street. He'd love every minute of it too. I have to admit, I'm spending more time developing this supporting character than my main character. So today's post is on the importance of supporting characters.
I think one of the primary signs of a good story is how well its supporting characters are developed. It would make sense that they would be - people aren't surrounded by boring friends and associates. Everyone in the world has their own quirks, and no one is a flat character. I think this has to hold true when writing supporting characters. For example, in the real world no one can be labeled the "the brave friend" or even "the mean girl" and have that label sufficiently cover their whole personality. I've seen books that do this, and not all of them are children's books (this flattening of characters can actually be a good thing in some children's books; it simplifies things). In the real world, you have "the brave friend who nonetheless hates heights and would rather not fight anyway" and "the mean girl who's that way because she never got over being a new girl and sings along to show tunes when she goes home".
One writer who creates excellent supporting characters is Joss Whedon. For example, in Firefly each character, whether it's a main character or a supporting one, has distinct personalities, to the point that if you know the character, you have an idea what he or she will say in any given situation. And the dialogue will sound like a real person talking. Yes, I know I'm revealing my geek side by using Whedon as an example, but it's true. He also helped write Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and you can see the same creative supporting characters there. The story just gets better when you have a cast of people, not just one person and a bunch of cardboard cutouts.
Another thing about writing good supporting characters, and this is my favorite reason, is because they're fun! A main character has to be someone a reader can relate with, with reasonable goals and motivations. A supporting character? Not so much. Your supporting characters can be psychopaths, aliens, thieves for the fun of it, anything and everything. The world doesn't need to make sense with a secondary character, so this is where the reader (and the writer) can live their wildest fantasies. I don't know what fantasy Berzen, my lying fugitive firethrower with no sense of self-preservation, is helping me live, but I have to say I really enjoy writing him.