Bookish Rant: Stand By Me, or, An Ode to the Supporting Character

Filed in Bookish Rant or Raves , featured , The Needy Lover Posted on September 12, 2012 @ 3:00 pm 4 comments

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.

. . .

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?


About Alisha

Alisha, the bespectacled and ever nerdy California girl, simply won't leave home without a book in hand. She loves language learnin' and is working toward becoming a bonafide grammar ninja. On any given day you'll find her haunting local libraries or baking scores of cupcakes and sweet treats.

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  • draconismoi September 12, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    I preferred pretty much every supporting character in Buffy and Harry Potter. And in Tamora Pierce’s Trickster series.

    These main characters were all so self-involved and often moronic that I couldn’t stand them, and actively rooted against them.

    Why would Buffy ever be able to take down Faith, who was so much more interesting? And awesome.

    Harry Potter’s whiny emo crap drove me nuts. I wanted to read about the adventures of Luna Lovegood, Tonks, and Lupin. Who were, you know, interesting characters I could respect.

    • Susan September 12, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      Ugh. Couldn’t stand Faith in the Buffy series. (I liked her better in the Angel series. Altho that series was generally a mess. . . ‘nother story.) It was *Spike* who ran away with the Buffy series, and then later the Angel series.

  • Susan September 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    The supporting characters can absolutely make or break a book/series–or even steal the show from the leads. I agree with all of your examples (with the exception of HP, but only because I never got beyond the first couple of books). And, as you showed, the supporting characters don’t even need to be human Atticus in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series is a very appealing lead, but his interactions with his dog, Oberon, take his character and the storyline to another level. And Charlie (the golem) in DD Barant’s Bloodhound Files is a far more interesting and likeable character than the main character, Jace.

    But maybe it’s easier to write a good sidekick/supporting character than a main character. I mean, they aren’t burdened with all those plot responsibilities and expectations of greatness. They can revel in their flaws, weaknesses, and eccentricities in ways the lead can’t.

  • aurian September 13, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Great post, you always make me think more about what I read. Yes. I like secondary characters, and yes, they are important in a story, as friends or enemies or just nosy neighbours to our hero and heroine. And yes, sometimes I prefer the secondary character over the main one, but I probably won’t finish the book if I dislike the mains so much. Cozy mysteries often have a very strong cast of characters along with the main sleuth, and they all play their roles. Family friends or pets.
    How about the In Death series. The secondary characters are getting more screen time and private life and I love that. Peabody and McNab, Mavis and Nadine. And even Charles and his doctor. Morris the coroner and dickhead, you can’t have a story without them,

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