Helen Cox is a UK author. She made her on-screen debut in The Krankies in 1990. Given the choice, her Mastermind topic would be Grease 2 and when someone asks her if she is a god she says 'yes.' Oh, you want to know about her books? Best click some of the links below.
Photograph by Helmut Jilka
Answer me this: How would you feel if your next door neighbour’s dog described you as ‘average’?
Why yes, I am being serious. Just humour me. And think about it.
In the life of your next door neighbour’s dog you are a mere supporting character. You don’t, as a rule, provide the bones. Share the walks. Or snuggle up with him by the fire in winter. On odd occasion you might collar him when he runs away. Or shout at him when he’s on your lawn doing things you’d really rather he wasn’t doing. But you’re not a major character in that dog’s life. Sorry. You’re a bit part at best.
Now. It’s an exaggeration to say I like animals more than people. But it’s not much of an exaggeration. If next door’s dog thought I was ‘average’, I’d be gutted. Surely, being referred to as average by anyone, particularly a self-important canine, would be a kick in the teeth. It’s a fair assumption that most, if not all, of us want to be much more than grey blurs in someone else’s peripheral vision. We want to be seen. Really acknowledged.
And, I’d wager, so do your supporting characters.
As readers, we can spot a cardboard cut-out of a character a mile off. And it irks us. They’re nothing more than stooges to move the plot forward. Their appearance seems contrived. Too convenient. And everyone, the characters included, can feel it.
But it needn’t be that way.
Regular readers of this blog know I don’t profess to be an expert on creative writing. I’m on a journey just like all other writers. But if we want our readers to see all our characters as 3D, real-life people, I believe we writers have to visualise them that way. We have to really see them and all the adorable little quirks that make them who they are.
A good starting point might be to think about the things people say about you. The feedback you get. People comment on each other’s physicality and personality all the time. You just have to listen for it.
On a physical level, most people comment on my eyes first. It’s not that my eyes are award-winning. They’re nice. I’m pleased with Mother Nature’s work and all that but there’s a deeper reason people notice them first.
I don’t like to brag but I’m good at eye contact. I like eye contact. I like to really see the person I’m talking to. I like to express through my eyes first my joy, sarcasm, annoyance. When people mention my eyes, I know they’ve understood that I’m really concentrating on them when they talk to me. And that I say more with my eyes than I do with my mouth (this doesn’t mean I’m quiet. Ask anyone who knows me, shutting up really isn’t my thing).
Now, think about that character who pops up in Act 2 of your story for one chapter. See them. Not just in your mind’s eye but in front of you. What do you notice first about them? More importantly, why do you think that’s the first thing you notice about them? Is that the first thing you need explain to the reader as they’re introduced?
Supporting characters aren’t the stars of your story but that doesn’t mean they don’t enrich your story. That they don’t have lives. Dreams. Psychoses. Or a very particular and precise method of filing their fingernails. And if you don’t record who they are and the part they play accurately, well… who will?