02 September 2010

From the Archives: Supporting Characters

from November 2005

In early drafts, many writers focus most of their attention on a main character or two. This may be particularly true of writers of short stories, but it is also common in contemporary novels. Capturing the depth, complexity and motivations of a main leading lady or lad can be a feat in itself. I often feel grateful getting that character—having caromed off interactions, items, objects and memories—to a satisfying ending. In my own revisions, though, I find that the bolstering of other characters can create a more interesting constellation of conflict and make the story . . . well . . . a story, rather than a meditation or a sketch.

Characters can work in concert with one another so that meaning emerges as a result of their interaction, a technique Charles Baxter refers to as "counterpointing." Knitting characters together in a comparative context can actually shape the conflict as one character attempts to live up to another's standard, purposefully goes against that standard, or flat out redefines it. But such relationships need not be strictly in the spirit of being against one another, like the famously opposing roustabout McMurphy and controlling Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Rather, characters who bring out a crucial response in one another can be put together to great effect. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, Gatsby finds the tantalizing and easily influenced Daisy within reach—as he has moved near her and acquired the wealth she so treasures—and this causes him to make decisions that set him on a fatal path. Daisy, too, is further characterized as her own reactions reveal her true nature.

Some supporting characters have done the vast majority of their work on the main character even before the story starts. Such characters are ones who have had a long reaching history with the main character—like parents, children or a spouse—and have influenced the way the main character views the world.  Other supporting characters may have had a brief role in the main character’s life, but made a particularly powerful impression. In Lolita, for example, the narrator Humbert Humbert traces his desire for nymphets back to an early love cut short when he was about thirteen: Annabel, a few months his junior.

In Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm, Frankie Machine struggles with the reality that his wife, Zosh, is in a wheel chair because of a car accident that took place while
Frankie was driving. Zosh's presence is powerful for Frankie in this novel, as facing her requires him also to face and experience the extent of his guilt. Frankie also remembers who Zosh was before the accident and putting those two different versions of his wife in a comparative context further informs Frankie's actions. His compulsion for drugs and indulgence in an affair with Molly-O, a more spirited woman, seem to give Frankie a temporary release from his guilt.

Don’t underestimate the power of supporting characters. They can represent to the main character a version of the self they once were. They can imprint the character with undeniable desires. They can even urge a main character in directions the reader might not expect.

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