A novel, like a movie or a play, needs a cast of characters. Some of these will be supporting characters. It’s deadly dull to read a book in which the author fixates on his protagonist and all the other characters are one or even no-dimensional nonentities–a common mistake made by inexperienced writers.
Without further ado, here are a few of my favorite supporting characters.
1. Mr. and Mrs. Webb in the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks. When Freddy’s in a jam, he turns to this pair of bold, resourceful, quick-thinking… spiders. Yup, I said spiders. They are invaluable allies in any complicated criminal investigation. They just have to be careful not to get swatted, stepped on, or sneezed into tomorrow. But don’t take my word for it: read a few of these books. It’s a great antidote for arachnophobia.
2. Tarzan’s monkey, Nkima, is in many of the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but in none of the Tarzan movies. Not taking away from Cheeta the chimp, who’s in the movies but not the books, but Nkima is a much more interesting character–terrified of practically everything in the jungle, boastful, easily distracted (but then so is Tarzan himself), vain, and totally devoted to his human friend. Great comic relief.
3. Reepacheep the Mouse, in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: imagine a Cyrano de Bergerac who’s only two feet tall, and you’ve got him. Courageous to the point of idiocy, Reep nevertheless sometimes sees more clearly into a situation than the human characters.
4. Prior Robert, in Ellis’ Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries. A Norman of noble birth, proud, arrogant, convinced that he ought to be the abbot, finicky and overly fastidious, inclined to self-righteousness–in spite of all these flaws, there is a wide streak of innocent un-worldliness in Robert’s psychology; and deep down inside, he is truly a man of God. Ellis Peters was the best when it came to creating truly complex characters; and she had the rare gift of being able to write about goodness, and truly good people, without ever being gooey or unbelievable.
5. Duke Corsus, a second-tier villain in E.R. Eddison‘s quirky fantasy masterpiece, The Worm Ouroboros, was once a great man. But years of wine-bibbing, pointless plotting and scheming, and inactivity have taken their toll. Corsus is just so bad in every aspect of his character, so lacking in redeeming qualities, that his actions become oddly fascinating. And then, given one last chance, he almost returns to greatness–but winds up making a hash of it. He’s just too steeped in villainy even to be successful as a villain anymore. He’s truly the worst of the lot, which makes him interesting. Which would certainly not be true if he really existed and had a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Yes, I know I’ve failed to mention many more great supporting characters. I’m hoping my readers will join in the fun and nominate some favorites of their own.