Just as characters vary in their roles, so do they differ in their importance. The protagonist is the central person. The story is about him/her and his/her want, but few stories exist with just one character. The main character must have others to interact with. We call these people the supporting characters.
I re-emphasize that the story is about the main character for a reason. In my experience, with writing classes – both participating in and teaching – it is the confusion on this one point that trips up many beginning writers. Too often a new writer gets caught up in one or more of the other characters and spins off on tangents which have no relevance to the main story. Once off-track, the story becomes murky and starts to unravel. The writer may develop writer’s block and have no clue where the road should lead or what the original destination was. I use the term “writer’s block” because it is a phrase tossed around so frequently in the writer’s world. In my opinion, tangents are the main cause for this problem. Remember when we said writing is like taking a trip. An individual is at point “A” and wants to go to point “B.” Here’s the analogy. The vehicle (the story) can’t move forward because the driver (writer) has taken a muddy road (tangent), and now the trip is stuck in useless information (writer’s block). Even worse, not only can’t the writer move on, he/she has expended energy, time, and resources (which were intended for the short story or novel) on these nonproductive segments. The consequence? Many writers become discouraged and give up.
In column one of this series, I advised writers to complete the first draft before editing. This “staying on task” will help keep the main story line clear and uncomplicated. The rewrites are the time and place to develop subplots and the other characters – they are there to support the protagonist, not to draw attention away from or compete with him/her.
Remember, the plot is comprised of scenes that lead to conflicts which set up the climax which in turn determines the resolution. These events focus on and are about the main character. The theme relates to the protagonist’s want and all the other characters are in the story to help or prevent him/her from reaching that goal.
Supporting characters range in importance. We’ve looked at the confidant, the person who allows the protagonist to express information that cannot be presented in a natural setting. We also discussed the antagonist, the person who actively seeks to prevent the protagonist from achieving his/her want. Both these characters usually have significant roles and are important to the story, but there are also other supporting characters, less important, but still needed to develop a story. Let’s look at foils, and symbolic and stock characters.
A foil is an individual who presents the opposite of what the main character stands for and highlights his/her qualities. Cinderella stands for goodness. The three stepsisters embody badness. Everything they say and do emphasizes the princess’s purity. Often a foil is also the antagonist, but it isn’t always the case. A minor character in a subplot may also serve as a foil.
A symbolic character is one who represents an idea or philosophy. These characters’ importance isn’t derived from their personality, rather what their words and actions signify. For example, a character may symbolize optimism in a story, but the character may be good or bad. Allegories use symbolic characters.
Stock characters are individuals who have been used so frequently they have become stereotypical. A sidekick is an example of such a character: Batman’s Robin, Han Solo’s Chewbacca, Lucy’s Ethel, and even Timmy’s Lassie. The butler in British cozies and the geeky teenager with acne and glasses are examples of other stock characters. Stock characters are usually used as shortcuts to character development, but beware: major/important people in your story need to be fleshed out and given a life.
Normally, stock characters are static: they remain the same throughout the story. But what about the nerd who evolves into a good-looking hero? Good point, and one we will address in the next column – Flat and Round Characters.
Our homonyms for this column are who’s and whose.
Who’s – is the contraction of who is.
ex: Who is going to kick the ball? Who’s going to kick the ball?
Whose – is the possessive form of who/whom.
ex: To whom does this book belong? Whose book is this?
Step Seven: Using one of your stories, identify your supporting characters and their function.