Supporting Characters & Artistic Integrity

Amateur authors and established authors alike often struggle with creating good supporting characters. The modern novel has reduced them to overlooked, dull and artistically-devoid plot devices.

People ignore the need for authenticity in this area because they forget that everything matters in writing. They should know better. Anyone who has ever spent over an hour on a single paragraph should understand the importance of their building blocks. Ignoring “minor” characters to focus on “what matters” is akin to hiring a world-class construction crew, equipping them with expensive tools, and then giving them rotten wood, rusting metal and crumbling brick to work with.

Too often I see implausible solutions for problems shifted onto the backs of otherwise unimportant individuals:

“Isabella was poisoned! Thank God my cousin is the world’s foremost expert in exotic toxins!”

“I have no idea what to do with my life… I’m sure Madame Chavali, our town’s fortune teller can help!”

et cetera… et cetera...

These, for want of a better word, “characters” swoop in, save the day or cause trouble, and leave. Their sole purpose is to further the story... Lacking in individuality, without a spark of humanity, it would be better if they didn’t exist - and you can tell James Patterson I said so!

To the few who still appreciate all aspects of writing, I offer the following tips:


Understand Your Character’s Goals

View characters like people whenever possible. Don’t try to think about who you need to progress the story - think, instead, about who you HAVE, and figure out how you can use them to reach your story goals. Read that again. It’s important.


Do The Best You Can

Let’s say your story has a sort of fantasy/medieval milieu. For whatever reason, you absolutely need a character inside your hero’s castle to spy on certain private meetings, and report his finding back to the evil warlord hiding in the woods with leagues of soldiers at his disposal. Write this character if there’s no avoiding it, but don’t lose sight of WHY would she do this. This is an exercise in thinking that too many writers avoid entirely.

If this character  lives in the castle, wouldn’t she have family in the castle or the nearby town? If the answer is “No”, why does she resent your hero - a presumably just, upstanding ruler - enough to betray him? Where is she going to live after his betrayal? Even if she does it for a large sum of money (a little bit of a cop out, but a perfectly fine motive), she needs to know that she can settle down somewhere with her earnings.

A lot of this character’s motivational questions might be answered through the broader question: why do the soldiers outside follow the evil warlord in the first place? Please avoid “money” as the chief answer to this question… but even that is better than the greatest cop-out of all: “Because they are evil.”


Introduce A Few Characters Without Story-Related Purposes

Sometimes, in life, you meet people once, and you never meet them again. That’s okay. The convenient character problem, mentioned earlier, is even more apparent when there aren’t enough minor characters without a necessary function. If there are only a few characters in our terrible fantasy novel, and one of them is a fantastic blacksmith, the reader is going to know that he (or she) is there to make weapons and armor. If there are a lot of characters - a baker, a horse trainer, a few farmers AND a blacksmith, that character’s important role may be somewhat masked.


Give Your Main Characters A Few Friends

This one is bound to offend a few people, but it must be said. A lot, if not most, of the main characters in stories have absolutely no family, and no friends whatsoever. Several even feature leading characters with amnesia who have forgotten who they are and who they know. This is because it’s easier to start from scratch and write about a single character in an unfamiliar setting than it is to fill in what a person’s world might actually be like.

There are exceptions. If your character legitimately would not have any friends (like The Underground Man in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, Notes from Underground), that’s perfectly acceptable. If your character is a bubbly teenage girl in high school, this is a serious problem.


Avoid Stereotypes

I already got into this on my post about Seeking Originality, so I won’t say too much here. You know what stereotypes are. Avoid them whenever you can.


Don’t Write Too Much About Supporting Characters

At first, this might seem like a contradiction to what I mentioned earlier. It’s not. Just because you need to know WHY a supporting character acts in the way they do, doesn’t mean you need to go into depth on the various aspects of their lives. It’s sufficient for you as the writer to know that Ricky holds up a liquor store because he can’t afford his medical bills - it’s better if you don’t show the conversation he had with his wife about it two weeks earlier.


Let Your Main Characters Solve Their Own Damn Problems!

Don’t poison a character unless they are either going to die or find the antidote on their own. And if they can’t find it in a realistic way - it’s better they die.

Character Motivation > Story Devices

“I’m doing alright. Not great obviously… very few people do great after a serial killer murders their wife… but I do feel like it’s a little easier.”

The above line of dialogue is written in a conversational, almost natural, way. It communicates both emotion and information, and it is completely void of grammatical error... And yet, there is something deeply wrong with it.

Let’s say, in the above scene that our main character is having a conversation with his brother, who has just asked him how he’s holding up. All of this comes across quite well in the sentence, but the problem comes when we begin to think about how someone might actually feel in this situation.

If your wife had just been murdered, would you want to talk about it? Probably not. So why, if your brother is well aware that your wife has been murdered, would you go out of your way to talk about it? The answer is, because you want to fill your reader in on what happened. This is an extremely serious problem. By allowing this to be an adequate reason for this line of dialogue, you have completely ignored your character’s motivation in favor of a story device. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the worst sins of writing.

The integrity of your characters - whether you’re writing comedy or drama - must be inviolable. If you push your characters needs aside, you are denying them of their humanity, and if you do that, they are no longer real. You’ve killed them.

When I say this, inevitably, I’ll get writers telling me that plot devices are necessary, and that their readers will be able to look past these issues because, even the most picky reader must understand that the story must progress… I’m not going to sugarcoat it: I completely disagree. This kind of delusional thinking is what lazy writers use to justify inadequacy. They don’t want to spend the time working with the characters that they created, so they bypass their wants and needs to make it easier to move their book toward its conclusion. If you cannot get information across without compromising the integrity of your character, then figure out a way to work without your reader knowing it. More often than not, a few chapters later, you’ll find a way to flawlessly make known what you need - and even if you don’t, sometimes leaving things out can give your work a touch of realism that is lacking in the works of most of your peers.

If it helps, think of it like a rhyming poem. Putting your words in rhyming form might seem like another constraint on your writing, but it often results in beautiful ideas that you might not have thought of if you had employed a different modus operandi. Always stay true to the way your character would act and feel in the situations they are in, and don't ever use devices when they interfere with their motivations.


Writing Prompt

Write a screenplay scene between two characters. One character has just suffered an extremely traumatic event; the other one is trying to console him/her. The details and the conclusion is up to you. Send it in for in-depth character analysis.