Friday, 6 March 2015

The bit player

Hello there!
The role of the supporting character should never be underestimated, and this is what I'd like to talk about today.

Movie awards recognise supporting actors with a dedicated category, and over the years we've seen some incredible performances. The idea of recognising the support actor started back in the 1930s and over the years some terrific actors have won.

Names immediately coming to mind - Walter Brennan, Gale Sondergard (these were the two very first winners in 1936. From there so many wonderful actors have taken the prize; Anthony Quinn, Hattie McDaniel, Shelley Winters, Michael Caine, Christoph Waltz (I love this guy) - these are just a few of my favourites.

When we think about books, we tend to think about the lead protagonists. How much, or how often do we think about the support characters?

I'm reading Game of Thrones at the moment - I'm on book four and I can't put it down (except to write to you, of course!). The interesting thing about GoT is that no character is a major or minor character. For those who haven't read these books, each chapter tells roughly the same story from a different character's point of view, but done in such a way as to ensure time continually moves forward.

It's very clever and very engaging, and even though I know there must be other books out there written in a similar fashion, I can't remember them off the top of my head. Please let me know of any you're aware of.

GoT aside, the role of the support character, or sub-character, is an important one. That person can be a friend and confidante of your lead character, or entirely the opposite - they may be the villain or antagonist. The nature of their realationship with your main character can be as basic as allowing your character to talk so we gain an insight into him or her. Alternatively, it can be complex, gradually becoming a stronger character in their own right.

Think Melanie Hamilton from Gone With the Wind. Melanie started out being the object of Scarlett's disdain and jealousy. She allows us, the reader, an insight into the workings of Scarlett's mind - we learned a lot about Scarlett through her attitude toward Melanie.

Throughout the course of the story, Melanie's role slowly shifted into that of the best friend. She was the wise one, the steady one, the one who would believe no ill of the people she loved and that stoicism made for some exciting drama as Scarlett leapt impulsively from one chapter to the next.

Gone With the Wind is a classic - probably one of the best books I've ever read. I, in no way, would ever presume to compare my work with Margaret Mitchell's work, however for the purposes of illustration, I would like to tell you about my own support characters.

In Torn, my lead protagonist, Alex, had a number of support characters; they were her family. Mainly her brother and Sister, Simon and Anne. She also had a friend called Julia. These characters enabled me to explore Alex and to show her personality and reactions to situations more clearly.

It's all about the show, not tell! Without part-players, I couldn't put my character into a frame and expect the reader to know anything about her. She had to have situations, conversations and conflict to bounce off and for that, you need support characters.

In Inviolate, the characters from the previous book are still there but in more minor roles. Alex's main support and confidante is a girl called Sylvie. Readers met Sylvie in Torn but she was introduced briefly and didn't stay long - very, very minor!

Sylvie became to Alex what Melanie became to Scarlett - and no, once again before I start receiving comments and emails - I'm not comparing my work with Gone With the Wind - this is purely to make a point, Sylvie became Alex's champion, following her, supporting her, advising her, in fact if it hadn't been for Sylvie there would not have been much to the story at all.

Which just goes to show the importance of her role - similar to Melanie, Scarlett would have been Scarlett, but how much of that epic novel would simply not have been if not for Miss Melly?

Inviolate spoiler alert - stop reading here if you haven't yet read Inviolate!

During the writing of Inviolate, I knew that Sylvie was important, but I didn't realise how important she would become to my readers until one day I bumped into a reader in the street who was terribly upset about Sylvie's death.

She told me that she had called a friend, who had recently read Inviolate, and asked her out for coffee so they could talk about it - a kind of grief counselling session between them. Neither could understand why Sylvie had to die and how I could make it happen.

Well two things:
1. I didn't make it happen - Sylvie had taken on such a life of her own that as I was writing her part, there came a time where I sat back in surprise because she was, in fact, dying and I hadn't seen it coming!
2. Alex didn't need her anymore - that simple. If Sylvie hadn't died, I would have sent her back to Scotland - got her out of the way. The plans I had for Alex didn't involve Sylvie.

In the end, when I realised Sylvie was dying, I realised I could stop it from happening but I had to think carefully about what that would mean for Alex, Patrick and the story as a whole. In the end, she died, and her dying caused Patrick such grief that he remained at Broughton Hall which, of course, resulted in his reconciliation with Alex.

If Sylvie hadn't died, Patrick wouldn't have stayed at Broughton Hall ... the outcome for Alex might have been very different.

In any event, it came as a bit of a shock to me, that Sylvie had gone from being a very, very minor character in Torn, to being the sort of character in Inviolate that people genuinely loved.

Kudos to Sylvie - she played her part well!

Until next week, say hi to one of the support characters in your own life story - perhaps someone you haven't spoken to in a while!

P.S. George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) has to be one of the bravest writers I've ever read - no character is safe from his chopping block!

No comments:

Post a Comment