While some books can hold their own with a solid, unshakeable protagonist (ahem, Jack Reacher), most books need to have an array of interesting, fully-realised supporting characters. Where would Bridget Jones be without her chain-smoking, straight-talking friends and family? Or where would Frodo be without the Fellowship? Probably wouldn’t have made it past his front garden, if we’re being honest.
Phaedra Patrick is an author who knows the value of an eclectic group of supporting characters. Her outstanding debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, wowed critics with its ‘oodles of charm’. Now she’s back with her highly anticipated follow-up, Wishes Under the Willow Tree, which once again is brimming with a number of unforgettable characters. We want to know how she does it.
Both of your novels have a fantastic array of supporting characters, how do you create supporting characters who are three-dimensional and with distinctive personalities?
Main characters have space and time throughout a novel to grow and develop, whereas supporting ones enjoy a more fleeting appearance. So it’s important that they are memorable for readers.
I always try to think of a couple of distinguishing attributes for each minor character, a little like a caricaturist might select strong features to exaggerate in a drawing. Or it might be something about the way they walk, or talk. I try to make them a little out of the ordinary – a llama keeper who ties up his long hair with a child’s pink bobble, a lonely lady who cares for others by baking cakes and who wears rhinestones on her fingernails, a lord of the manor who dresses only in cobalt blue and who hand-raises tigers.
It also helps to give minor characters a passion, obsession or duty. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something that allows them to have a journey or goal of their own. They may love trying out different flavours of crisps, or be hunting for a place to live. They might have a secret unrequited love, or be trying to save a floundering relationship. It’s great if it’s something readers can relate to or recognise.
What should good supporting characters contribute to the story?
We all have other people in our everyday lives, even though not all of them are helpful! Some have large parts to play, and others have smaller ones. Main characters need people around them too, whether that’s friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues, strangers…or even enemies and rivals.
Supporting characters are there to encourage and help the hero or heroine on their journey. Or to throw hurdles in their way. They can add variety to the story, offer solutions, or a bit of humorous relief. They should help the main character to shine, rather than try to hog the limelight themselves.
Are the supporting characters initially vehicles for the plot or do they come to you first and you figure out a way to fit them in?
In both my novels the supporting characters often showed up unannounced, as I wrote. It’s a little like a casting call for extras and you never know who is going to turn up on the day.
Has a supporting character ever found its way into a more prominent role, if so who/why?
In The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Arthur’s interfering neighbour, Bernadette, initially had a smaller role. She was there to bother and provoke Arthur. However, the more she turned up on his doorstep with her home-made pies, the more it became apparent that they both needed each other, in order to move on with their lives.
Which book/film/play has outstanding supporting characters? What do they have that makes them special and what can writers learn from it?
One of my favourite introductions comes from Tony Stark, the main character in the film Iron Man, when he introduces himself as, ‘Genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist.’ These four words give us such a clear picture of his character. I actually think it’s brilliant film too, one of my top three. All the characters are distinctive, their interaction is exciting, the main character has an interesting journey full of highs and lows, plus there’s a great bad guy.
Describing your friends and family in four words can be a great writing exercise to try out. Or, why not ask them to describe you? It’s a useful trick to apply to the cast of your book, to give you a strong framework for their characters.
Once you have four words to describe your main character, you can think of contrasting or complimentary ones for your supporting ones, so you have a real mix. If you have a workaholic protagonist, try giving her a lazy assistant and see what happens. Or if you have an unlucky-in-love bachelor, give him a flat mate who’s an expert on Tinder. The combinations are endless.
How do you know when to cut a minor character out? Have you ever had a ‘kill your darlings’ moment?
I’m guilty of committing a few murders when necessary. If a minor character doesn’t contribute to your main character’s journey or quest, then they should leave or change. You can often ‘feel’ when they aren’t quite working. My second book, Wishes Under the Willow Tree (known as Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone in the US), featured a Yorkshire hairdresser who just wasn’t doing her job. It’s only when I turned her into an Italian florist instead, that she came to life.