Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Importance of Minor Characters

Bear with me while I share a story about me that will, I promise, tie in to today's topic:

I spent my high school years being dramatic. I know, I know. Who didn't, right? I mean dramatic on stage. Membership in the International Thespian Society required a minimum of 100 volunteer hours in community theater--I hit that benchmark by winter break my freshman year. I lettered in drama all four years. I spent a great deal of time in costume and stage makeup. While I loved my time on stage, one thing about it bothered me from day one. I was always--ALWAYS--a supporting character.

I played "Tiny Tim" in A Christmas Carol, "Marta" in The Sound of Music, "Minnie Fay" in Hello, Dolly. We reached the final show of my senior year and I had yet to snag a lead part, something I really, really wanted.

A retired theater teacher, Mr. Farrell--a man whose wisdom I really respect--helped cast that final show. I got into a conversation with him about roles and casting and my frustrations with always being "support staff." He said something to me that I have never forgotten.

"Anyone can play a lead. It's the supporting roles that are hardest to cast, because they make or break the show. The non-lead characters give a story so much of its dynamic that if they aren't done correctly the whole thing falls apart."

Which brings us to this post's topic of discussion: Minor Characters.

I cannot tell you how many times I've read a book in which the supporting cast was nothing but a collection of cardboard space fillers pulled directly from Stereotypes-R-Us.

Just like Mr. Farrell said, supporting characters are crucial in any story and, perhaps, the trickiest to get right. As an author, we have to balance the influence a minor character has with the need for the story to remain the main character's. We have to develop the minor characters without losing focus. We want a diverse cast without resorting to cookie-cutter support staff.

One example of a fabulously balanced set of characters can be found in the classic television show, The Andy Griffith Show. The show revolved around Andy Taylor, there's no doubt about that. But the supporting characters had their moments to shine and their roles to fill. Gomer. Goober. Aunt Bee. Opie. And, of course, Barney Fife. There may have been episodes that focused on one of these smaller characters, but the show as a whole was held together by Andy.

Barney was arguably the most significant of the minor characters. His interaction with Andy was, in my opinion, the most crucial dynamic in the series. When Don Knotts left the show and, thus, Barney's character moved away from Mayberry, the show lost its heart. Andy was still there. The basic premise was still the same, but the dynamic was broken. Barney's journey was intrinsically tied to Andy's. We needed him there to round out the story.

So, what does this tell us about the non-lead characters in our writing? Don't underestimate their importance.

Let's take a look at a few reasons why Barney Fife worked so well as a supporting character.

A) He was an actual person, not a means to an end.
Too often when creating minor characters, a writer invents the type of character he needs and adjusts as needed to fit the story. Wrong. Minor characters require the same level of consistency that a main character does. They need motivations. They need history. They need depth.
Sure, Barney was a goofy, punchline of a character, but he was real. He had his insecurities (his size, his comparative unimportance, the (lack of) respect he received from the community). We saw his roller coaster relationship with his longtime girlfriend. We heard bits of his history that were never inconsistent.
Barney was real and that was crucial to his success as a minor character.

B) He didn't take over the series.
Sure, there were episodes that were about Barney, but go back and watch them again and you'll realize that those story lines always tied back to Andy's. Often something that happened to Andy triggered the plot line of those episodes focused almost solely on Barney. Andy was the glue that held Mayberry and the show together. Barney's character never veered from that. His successes and failures and character arcs were always a complement to Andy's and were never independent of Andy's.
This is the same approach authors need to take with their minor characters. These non-leads still have a character arc, but it doesn't take over the story. Subplots intrinsically tied to these supporting characters don't happen 100% independent of the main story. They don't take up more page time. If you find a minor character is repeatedly taking precedence over your main character, take a step back and figure out why. Maybe you're telling the wrong story. Maybe you love that minor character a little too much and bring them into scenes simply because you enjoy writing them.

C) He wasn't redundant.
The Andy Griffith Show was full of goofy characters. They were funny, off-the-wall, oddball characters, but all in different ways. Gomer Pile was the simple, always-upbeat, down-home character. Aunt Bee was the maternal, worry-wart, domestically concerned character. Opie was the innocent, child's view of the world character. Barney was the slapstick, doesn't realize he's funny, overly confident, best friend character. Get where this is going? They were all unique and had their own roles to play. If Gomer and Barney and Floyd the barber and Otis the town drunk, had all been carbon copies of each other, the overall dynamic would not have worked.
Keep that in mind when developing your cast of characters. They need to all be unique in some way, to have a role that they alone fill.

D) The writers (and actors) knew how to play Barney and Andy off each other.
Andy was the straight man. Barney was the comic. Andy's character certainly had a sense of humor and could joke around with the best of them. We see Andy play pranks on Barney (ie every time Barney falls asleep on the job, Andy does something to him), and we can see by Andy's reaction to Barney's frequent soliloquies that Andy can be goofy. But he chooses not to be. They aren't both goofy at the same time. Andy sits back and lets Barney be the funny one. That is their character dynamic. It works best that way, so that's the pattern they stick to. Doing this also keeps Andy in the main character roll, because in so many ways he guides the scenes Barney is part of.
As an author, you should know what works best between your main character and their "sidekicks." Give them a history together and a pattern of interactions that best compliments each other and the story you're trying to tell.

Character development is a complex and on-going effort for any author. I guess what this long, long post boils down to is this: "Don't ignore your minor characters." They need attention, too. Or, in the (slightly adjusted) words of the ever-wise Mr. Farrell:

"It's the supporting roles that are hardest to [write], because they make or break the [story]. The non-lead characters give a story so much of its dynamic that if they aren't done correctly the whole thing falls apart."


Katy B. said...

You know, this post makes me look at the supporting roles in my real life story very my kids, my husband, a good friend.......I wouldn't be able to play the lead in my own life if not for these amazing people. :) thank you for reminding me friend.

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

Thespian president -wOoT WoOt

And fellow supporting role taker. After a while I figured out I was just meant to be the funny friend (Ado Annie, Ursula Merkle, Leisel VonTrapp...she's not very funny) *tangent-my husband just wrote a character into his WIP based on me and she's a wacked out side show...even the people who know you best, I guess*

I was just noticing that I have a small side character at the beginning of one of my MS that is eerily similar to a small side character at the end.
Mmmmm, gonna have to change that. (But they are so funny)

Loved the Andy Griffith analogy. Spot on!

Good stuff ALL AROUND.

Krista said...

Super! I just blogged about both sides of this very thing! Great minds, Sarah, Great minds.

Terry W. Ervin II said...

Good post and analogies to make your points.

Melanie Jacobson said...

Great post. I've rarely had underdeveloped characters break a story I'm reading, but it's . . . well, it's sublime when they make the story. Those are stories where almost everything else is dialed in perfectly, too. Or maybe I feel that way because I'm a character driven reader and writer. Anyway, really well said. (P.S. Love that you use The Andy Griffith Show of all things.)


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