By the way, I’d like to take this moment to note that this marks my 100th post on this here ranty blog. Who would’ve ever guessed I’d have this much to say about writing. Well, without it devolving into incoherent jabbering and a lot of gestures.
There’s a comic book writer/ novelist/ screenwriter by the name of Peter David. If you’re reading this and haven’t heard of him, I highly recommend hitting Borders or Amazon and grabbing one or three samples of his work. The man knows how to write characters like no one else.
In one of the early issues of his run on the comic X-Factor, David had someone make the keen observation that every super-hero group has a strong guy. The immediate joke was to explain the huge muscle-bound guy on the team (who was then inspired to adopt the codename “Strong Guy”), but there’s a larger point to be made with this.
Every superhero group has a strong guy because at some point they need a strong guy. As a writer, the reason you have a character who can bench press 90 tons is because at some point in the story there will be a Sherman Tank that needs throwing, a house-sized boulder that needs to be shifted, or a giant ninja-robot between your team and their ultimate goal. You put the strong guy on the team because you’re going to give him a chance to show off his strength.
This has been an enduring theme in literature for centuries. The mismatched team where every member eventually becomes necessary. You’ve probably heard some variation on the classic fairy tale about the six friends. A young man sets out to perform some tasks so he can win the hand of a princess. During his journeys he becomes friends with the fastest man in the world, the strongest man in the world, the hungriest man in the world, the man with the sharpest vision in the world, and so on. Oddly enough, to complete his tasks the young man needs someone who is incredibly fast, strong, hungry, etc. Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam adapted this tale, by the way, and called it The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Now, there’s a simple corollary to this I’m sure most of you have already figured out. If there isn’t something for the strong guy to do, you shouldn’t have a strong guy on your team. You’ll notice few superhero groups include someone who can blink at amazing speed. None of the variations of the Grimm’s fairy tale feature someone who can shoe oxen better than anyone else in the world. In no version of the Ocean’s 11 films do they make a point of getting a great pastry chef on their team (although I freely admit I never saw the last one so... maybe they did). These people all may be fascinating in their own way, but they don’t really contribute anything to the particular story being told. High-speed blinking may be superhuman and somewhat interesting, but it’s also kind of useless when you’re saving the world from Galactus.
Thing is, this little observation holds for every character, not just ones in genre stories. If the character isn’t doing anything and doesn’t contribute, why are they there? As the name implies, a supporting character should be helping to hold things up. Not big things--that’s what your main characters are for--but they’re bearing the load around the perimeter and on the edges. They keep the tone balanced, give the main characters a sounding board for ideas and exposition, and help sustain the suspension of disbelief. If you’ll pardon my saying it, they’re the ones keeping it real.
A good chunk of the time, though, a supporting character get stuck into a story for the wrong reasons. Often it’s because the writer has seen a similar character in a similar story, so said writer just wedges a rough copy of that character into their own story. It doesn’t matter if this character does anything or not, there’s just this unspoken assumption they have to be there. A lot of comic-relief characters come about this way. Fledgling comedy writers stick in the goofy sidekick or wild neighbor because comedies always have a goofy sidekick or wild neighbor. Zorro, the Green Hornet, and Batman all have helpful manservants, so I should stick one into my adaptations of Doctor Fate, right?
Y’see, Timmy, much like the golden rule, just because something works in your story doesn’t mean it’s going to work in my story. This is especially true of the characters. I can’t just cram a random person into my novel or screenplay because there’s a good chance they don’t mesh with the story or the existing characters. Forcing them in means they’re unnatural, which usually means they’ve just become unbelievable characters within the scope of this story. Why would Phoebe and Dot possibly be friends when they’re complete opposites in every way? How could a bumbler like Yakko have possibly made it onto this elite squad of high-tech thieves? Why would dark ninja overlord Wakko allow someone like me (or worse, me as played by Rob Schneider) to stumble along behind him on his mission of vengeance? There has to be a reason for a supporting character to be in your story, otherwise they’re just eating up words and pages that should be spent on your main characters.
Speaking of which, a follow up problem is when main characters take a backseat to the supporting characters. We’re following Wakko for the whole manuscript, but suddenly at the end Chicken Boo dashes in and defuses the bomb, gets the girl, or lands the plane. To be terribly honest, I did this myself in the first two drafts of Ex-Heroes. It wasn’t St. George that beat the monster in the end, but a guy on the walls of the Mount named Ilya. It was still a fun, cool scene, but what I’d effectively done with it was made my hero useless. He didn’t save the day--some regular guy with a rifle did. Not impossible, but also not what this story was about.
Main characters do the main things. Supporting characters do lesser things. In the movie Aliens, Corporal Hicks survives and helps Ripley and Newt escape the hiveworld because he’s a main character. Vice versa, he’s a main character because he survives and helps Ripley and Newt escape the hiveworld. Aliens doesn’t focus on Frost or Apone or even Vasquez because they’re the lesser characters. One of the reason we can tell this is because they die early on in the story.
It sounds a bit like circular logic, I admit. However, don’t look at it from the story point of view (where it’s confusing) but from the storytelling point of view. If Hicks wasn’t the main character, why would he survive over someone else? Why would he succeed where others fail? I’m not a good storyteller if the focus of my tale isn’t about the people who survive and succeed (assuming anyone does survive this particular story).
Dan Abnett has a habit of introducing characters in his Gaunt’s Ghosts series, giving us a name and a thumbnail description, showing them in a few action scenes, and then killing them. Why? Because the Ghosts are fighting a war. They’re almost constantly wrapped up in one battle or another, and, awful as it is to say, it’s not a believable war when only the bad guys die. Abnett introduces these secondary characters--and then often shoots them in the head-- to remind the reader how brutal life is on the battlefield. Even the sci-fi battlefield of the future.
Next time around, on a somewhat similar note, I’d like to prattle on about your story. The one you want to tell.
Until then, go write.