What’s Snow White without dwarves? Sherlock Holmes without Dr. Watson? Harold and Kumar without Neil Patrick Harris? I’ll tell you: they’re moderately enjoyable characters that are missing that extra ingredient to make their adventures a little more amusing, their observations more profound, their wacky jokes even more hilarious.
I’m a big fan of the supporting figure in many a medium, but it’s that role in genre fiction that really produces some winners. Perhaps it’s the relative freedom afforded to stories that are heavy on world building and long-term character development. But whether a supporting character is nearly a main character, a second-string figure, or a fleeting blip of a presence in a story, they have the power to leave some of the most lasting impressions upon readers.
What makes for a good supporting cast of characters? Tough to answer that subjectively. *I* think good supports are the right balance of caricature and personality; just enough of the former to be immediately memorable, and enough of the latter to seem genuine and relatable. In certain genres the role serves as a subtle voice of reason, a sounding board, or perhaps just a contrast to highlight a protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses. They have flexibility of action and motivation that the main characters may not, and they can make a story “pop” with even a minimal bit of time in a scene.
Just about every story has some type of supporting cast. Some particularly memorable secondary characters that come to my mind:
Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series. Though Harry, Ron, and Hermione often considered themselves to be on the far fringes of popularly (barring Harry’s infamy for a whole other reason), it was Neville and and Luna that truly suffered through bullying and teasing for their unique personalities. They are the ones that came up against all odds because no one expected them to be as clever, brave, and generally crucial as they eventually proved to be. Harry, Ron, and Hermione were almost like superheroes; compared to that, Neville and Luna were each the everyman/everywoman.
Lord Akeldama of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series was like a bright slash of color across an already vivid canvas of wild characters. The frivolous vampire was one of the only characters to perplex and fluster the series’ protagonist, Alexia Tarrabotti. He made random appearances, and whenever he was on, something big happened; even if it was just a big laugh.
Characters from romances can be a whole other kettle of fish. The awesome thing about them is that, oftentimes, they themselves become main characters in later installments. This provides a reader with time to grow slowly grow attached to the supporting character, to appreciate the morsels of time they’re featured. Vlad Tepes of the Night Huntress series is one such for me; he was often the character that got some of the best lines, appearing in a story for just long enough to punch up a plot with his quirks before disappearing mysteriously. In his case, it’s such a treat that he himself is now a co-protagonist in a spinoff series.
One of my favorite supporting characters, however, began as something of an antagonist. Vel from Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series is actually a humanoid shapeshifting alien who is a quiet, profound, and increasingly amusing presence in the series. As he becomes more of a familiar face to Sirantha Jax, so too does he grow into a comforting presence for the reader. Every line of his is a treat, as he’s a bit like a Mr. Miyagi to Sirantha’s turmoil-ridden personality.
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What are your thoughts on the supporting character? Do you have any favorites? Have you ever come across a secondary character that you actually preferred over the protagonist?