You’ve got your protagonist and the jerk that’s against him all laid out and ready to go. Now the real fun can begin. No, we’re not starting to write just yet. When beginning a novel, it’s easy to forget that your protagonist and your villain need a strong supporting cast of players to bring it all together and to breathe life into your story. And they shouldn’t be thrown in all willy-nilly. The “Extras” are the color, the interest, the little bit of something that sets your story out from the thousands of others like it. Getting to know the supporting cast is as important as knowing your main characters. When you know all of the extras like the back of your hand, then you know before you begin each scene which of them are needed at each stage and which ones are useless decoration or filler. A lot of writers treat extras like fluff. They’re little more than ornamentation, stereotypes and clichés. No. No. No. This makes your plot and your main characters weak. Don’t give them the same, tired old best friend or jilted lover. Get your thinking cap on and make the extras as memorable (or damn close) as the protagonist.
Shall we have a look at our extras? All right then, here we go:
The Main Character
The main character is the person we view the story through, and I’m adding him as an extra because he’s not always the protagonist. He’s the narrator of the story. Writing your story via the POV of another character, a secondary, less important character, who can only see the action from the outside and assume this or that about the protagonist can add depth to the protagonist. I mean, we don’t see ourselves and what we do as others can see us, and your protagonist can’t either. Anne Rice proves how well this can work in “Interview with the Vampire” where Louis is narrating Lestat’s tale, and who is it we remember most? Exactly. While Lestat is the character the story is centered on, the driving force behind the plot, Louis’s narration adds color and intensity that Lestat’s POV could not have done.
The Voice of Reason
The Voice of Reason character is calm, rational and cool. This extra character might even be perceived as cold or boring. She’s the one that bases everything on logic and reason, and may be on the protagonist’s side, or the antagonist’s. She might not be on anyone’s side. Her purpose is to rein shit in and make everyone just calm the fuck down and take stock. She may or may not be tangible. The voice of reason is sometimes a character’s conscience, an event, or a relationship. While not specifically a person, the voice of reason plays an important role in keeping things moving forward.
She might not do this via dialogue or even intentionally, but the voice of reason is a tool that can create excellent tension and conflict in your story, and she has no bigger a role physically than the guy at the bar serving drinks to the killer’s first victim.
I’ve seen many a tale where the voice of reason is misused. Instead of using this character subtly, the writer just inserts her as a fact-giver, or a way to drop some backstory to make everything before her insertion make sense. No, good God, don’t do that. Look at how Gandalf plays the voice of reason in “Lord of the Rings,” for example. When the main characters get all bent out of shape and lose sight of the goal, a brief scene with Gandalf in it gets shit back on track. He reminds them of the logic of the situation, with a few lines that aren’t obviously saying “Get your shit together, boys.” and they’re back on track. Inserting a doctor, lawyer or scientist, or any figure of authority, merely to give facts is lazy. The voice of reason must remind the other characters what’s at stake without literally reminding them what’s at stake. Sometimes it’s as simple as your protagonist (let’s say it’s a romance) is losing steam, losing motivation, and perhaps his goal is to win the girl and live happily ever after, but she’s playing so hard to get that he just thinks maybe that sweet blonde next door would be way easier to win. He meets the blonde, maybe takes her out on the town, but as she talks and he gets to know her, he realizes the other girl, his goal, is everything this blonde is not. She’s the only one who makes his heart do this and his mind do that. In this case, the blonde is the voice of reason because she makes him refocus his attention on his goal, which he realizes was not just finding an easy lay. She doesn’t do it intentionally or obviously, but she still gets shit back where it should be, and she adds a little tension in the meantime. I mean, the love interest is going to be all “I thought you loved me, and here you are dating Blondie,” and he’ll be all, “Yeah, but…” and you go from there. Yeah, cheesy example, but you see what I mean, right? Good. Moving on.
The Emotional Pit
The Emotional Pit isn’t a sobbing mess. This character can be many things. Energetic, disorganized, angry, sad, elated; he is someone that seems to be uncontrolled and driven by feelings. The Emotional Pit wears his heart on his sleeve and his emotions are quick to ignite, whether that’s anger, glee or something else. He’s also you’re go-to character for empathy and understanding. Perhaps he’s the ex-boyfriend, or the weird neighbor who likes to make protest signage and killed your antagonist’s cat last month because it was giving him messages from Satan. Maybe this character is simply a child, which we all know can be believably emotionally batshit. The important factor in this character is that he must stand apart from the main plot line as an extra, but still manage to crank up the conflict and tension. So don’t just have this crazy, lunatic type come running in to say he’s all pissed at shit. That’s not adding anything.
Your Emotional Pit character helps to make the protagonist identify some of his emotions, or perhaps he can force other characters to realize the severity of the situation. He might even be an obstacle in the protagonist’s way. He’s not the villain or the antagonist, but he could be a pain in the ass just the same.
Ah, the sidekick/bestie, your protagonist’s faithful go-to guy or gal who way too many people think should offer undying support and love. The reality is that this character can be the supporter of any character, not just the protagonist. And he can support the protagonist without being a yes-man all the time. You can give the villain, the voice of reason, or any other character a bestie/sidekick. The role of this guy or girl is varied, but the potential for cliché is huge, so use this one with caution and make sure he’s necessary to the plot before you go dropping him in all willy-nilly.
Sidekicks might be included for comedy relief, contrast, or they might be the method in which you reinforce a character’s goal or beliefs. A sidekick/bestie can play dual roles, sometimes being the Voice of Reason, the Emotional Pit or he might only play a sidekick. Your protagonist and your antagonist might both have one of these guys at his side, and this character doesn’t have to be faithful and supportive in that nauseating loyal puppy dog sort of way.
For example, in Dirty Truths, I have this character named Thomas. He’s a tall, dark and creepy sort, who is kind of good, kind of bad. He’s Wade’s best friend, but he’s definitely far from what you’d call a puppy dog. He threatens Kristina, the protagonist, and kills off her obstacle character, Wade’s wife, but talks about love and loyalty like a priest might, and he’s kind of inspiring when he does it. Later he goes all badass on Wade, because Wade is obviously not thinking rationally, and he’s quite scary.
A clearer example (because most of you have no clue what I’m talking about with Dirty Truths) might be Watson, Sherlock’s sidekick/bestie character. He’s loyal and all that, but he sees Sherlock for what he is. In other words, this character doesn’t have to be stupid or blindly follow the character he supports. He can play the yin to that character’s yang. Get it? Good.
The bartender, the mailman, the hooker on the street that no one likes to admit knowing on a personal level, the neighbor, the teacher…all the characters the reader thinks are part of the set, but who actually play a big role in shit are the inconsequentials. I should’ve used another word, because these characters have to be necessary, not replaceable, but this is how we view them, so it’s easier for me to remember them this way.
The inconsequential characters are all the ones you need to add to make the story believable and to help drive the action forward. If your character goes to a store, there needs to be a cashier to ring in the crap he buys. If he dies and goes to Hell, there needs to be an entity to meet him there. These characters are asides, not part of the action or main plot line, but vital to it. Stephen King, Charlaine Harris, and Dennis Lehane are all brilliant at creating inconsequentials that are so dynamic and real, you can’t imagine another character playing the small roles they’re given. Read a couple of their novels, and you’ll see what your goal should be in creating an inconsequential. While their actions may not change the outcome of the story, if you remove them, it affects the story and it’s “tone” dramatically.
So there you have it. There are probably at least a dozen or more other types of extras you can put into your story that I haven’t listed here. In the interest of brevity, I tried to keep it to the most commonly used ones. I’ve kept inhuman characters and love interests aside. Those two deserve their own discussion in another post. So what are your favorites? Do you have any tips for making them memorable?