Terrouge E-zine Archives
Supporting characters are the backbone of a writer's novel structure. Without supporting characters, an author could not resort to sending his protagonist into peril because there would be nobody to rescue him or her. In The Lord of the Rings, how would Frodo Baggins been able to destroy the One Ring without his trusty gardener, Samwise Gamgee? The helpful, chubby hobbit loyally stuck by Frodo's side all the way to the Cracks of Doom. When his beloved Mr. Frodo was captured by the Orcs of Cirith Ungol, it was the unwavering Sam Gamgee who attacked the tower and scoured it for any sign of his master, eventually saving him and the Ring from the hands of the enemy.
A good supporting character is believable; they aren't the best at what they do, but they are adequate. When novels are littered with impossibly articulate and talented protagonists, the supporting characters immediately become a strong focus for both author and reader. Fans of Star Wars seldom place Luke Skywalker as their favorite character, but rather the endearing, bad-to-the-bone Han Solo, or the wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi.
An example of an author who uses many believable and fascinating supporting characters is Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the Earthsea Cycle and Newbery Honor recipient. In A Wizard of Earthsea, the protagonist, Ged, befriends another training sorcerer by the name of Vetch. Vetch's real name is Estarriol, but that is a secret between the two friends. He is heavyset, restrained and is not the most powerful of sorcerers. Rather than being driven by jealousy and hatred, much like Ged and his rival, Jasper, Vetch is led and motivated by love, kindess, and happiness. The young wizard is friendly to both Ged and Jasper, despite the two more brilliant wizards' frequent conflicts. Vetch warns Ged about summoning a spirit when trying to prove his power to Jasper; Ged ends up releasing an evil shadow upon the land that attacks its summoner ferociously. While the rest of the boys flee, including Jasper, Vetch is the only boy who stays and endeavors to help his friend from the onslaught of blows he was taking from the gebbeth.
A year later after Ged has recovered from his major injuries, Vetch approaches him and informs him that Vetch is now a Wizard, and has been awarded a staff. Vetch then returns to his home island, but tells Ged the deepest secret a man has in the Earthsea: his true name. Ged returns the favor, and the two become bonded by friendship. Two years later, when Ged finds Vetch and tells him of his quest to hunt down his shadow, his friend insists that he comes along. Estarriol (no longer called Vetch by his friend) and Ged get aboard a boat and sail into the perilous sea where no lands are known. Estarriol's sacrifice and will to dive into evil with his companion proves his friendship time and time again. Without Estarriol's constancy and support, Ged could have been lost or driven into complete isolation many times.
Authors looking to write a good supporting character should take note of the kind of supporting characters used by other writers such as Tolkien or Le Guin, and avoid the annoying archetypes that taint much modern literature.