Writing Thursday: Memorable Supporting Characters

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Quick, what’s the first picture in your mind if I ask about the television show Frasier? Bet it was Niles or Daphne or even Martin’s old green chair. I don’t think it was actually the image of Kelsey Grammer playing Dr. Frasier Crane. Supporting characters. Some are as memorable as the antagonist or protagonist of a book, movie, or television show. Some are even more so. Did you know that Anthony Hopkins was only on the screen for sixteen minutes as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs? The movie itself was 118 minutes, yet Anthony Hopkins won a Best Actor Oscar for his role. Supporting characters. What is it about them that can make or break a book or a movie? Why do some of them linger after we stop watching or reading? So today, let’s look at supporting characters in terms of romance novels and see how some classic movies can help us form more memorable characters.

The Lady Eve. If you’ve never heard of Preston Sturges, do yourself a favor and watch either The Lady Eve or Sullivan’s Travels. Both are comedic gems, untarnished in the decades since they were produced. If you need more convincing to watch The Lady Eve, did I mention this movie stars a young Henry Fonda and a pre-Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck? This is one worth watching.

The story is simple. A card-shark father-and-daughter team is traveling on a cruise ship and sets up the heir of Pike’s Pale, the ale that won for Yale, as a target for their get-rich-quick scheme. When the heir unmasks her to her face, she devises a plan for revenge. The execution of the story is anything but simple. In fact, it is sheer delight.

Especially helping the story are the supporting characters, each of whom could have been one-dimensional, but the screenwriter and actors turned these characters into fully rounded people. For example, the father. In most books or movies, the con artist father is oily and doesn’t care about his daughter. After all, he’s leading her down a path of crime. Yet Charles Coburn as Harry makes us care. He’s charming as he recounts his stories without the greasy charm that could have been employed. He’s also regretful as he hangs up the phone over 2/3 of the way into the movie. Part of the revenge scheme includes a wedding. And he hangs his head over not getting the chance to give his daughter away. It’s little moments like those that make us care for a supporting character.

Romance novels that capture the spirit of a supporting character can be the most memorable. For example, in Piper Huguley’s The Preacher’s Promise, Ms. Huguley does a tremendous job with the supporting character of March. This eight-year-old is particularly memorable as she latches onto Amanda Stewart and doesn’t let go. She marches into Amanda’s life and into the reader’s hearts.

Gold Diggers of 1933. Busby Berkeley was a famous director in his time. Known for his over-the-top musical extravaganzas, he produced this classic movie. It was supposed to be a movie featuring the leads of Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. Instead it catapulted Ginger Rogers to stardom. In the beginning music number, Ginger Rogers sings “We’re in the Money” in Pig Latin in what amounts to a coin-encrusted costume that predates bikinis but could be mistaken for one. When you watch the movie over eighty years later, the other leads are okay, but Ginger Rogers stands out. Why? Because her dialogue snaps, her delivery is impeccable, and she sparkles, literally and figuratively.

There’s an unwritten rule in romance writing: if your supporting female character is more interesting than the heroine, why isn’t she the heroine? This movie proves it. Ginger Rogers is more interesting than the lead female. Who did they end up teaming with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio? Do we still talk about Fred and Ruby? Nope. Eighty years later and the dancing of Fred and Ginger is still hard to beat.

So make your supporting character strong and vibrant, but don’t give them such juicy lines and actions that your reader is wondering why they aren’t the lead characters.

The Thin Man. Then there’s Asta. I threw this one in at the last minute. Animals can have quite the appeal as supporting characters. Would The Thin Man have been as wonderful with William Powell and Myrna Loy but without Asta? I don’t think so. While I love Nick and Nora Charles, Asta completes the movie.

At present, I’m reading Haywood Smith’s Out of Warranty, and I’ve read the first 120 pages. I love Juliette the miniature pig. She’s a great supporting character.

I’ve read twenty of the 21 Stephanie Plum books. Anyone who has read any of this Janet Evanovich series will probably bring up Rex and Bob in his or her discussion of the books. We care about Rex and we read, among other reasons, to find out if Stephanie throws in a grape or an olive to Rex.

Animals can add a touch of support to the main characters in a memorable way. Give them actions that are unique to them, describe them, make the reader care about them.

The African Queen. The supporting character doesn’t have to be a person or an animal. It can be a setting. Who can forget the Ulanga River with its waterfalls and twists and turns? To me, it’s almost as memorable of a character as Humphrey Bogart’s Charlie Allnut and Katharine Hepburn’s Rose Sayer. If you haven’t seen this movie and watch one new-to-you movie this weekend, make this the movie you watch. It’s awesome.

In her Kincaid Bride series, Mary Connealy uses this tactic to her advantage. The cave is a supporting character in all three novels. She uses each character’s POV to show what the cave means to each of them and how it has impacted all of their lives. The cave was as alive to me as any of the characters. Don’t be afraid to use the setting as a supporting character.

These are four classic movies that have helped me think more about supporting characters as I write. Who have been some of your favorite supporting characters in the movies? Let me know.

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