My freshman year of college I took an introductory anthropology class and while I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in that class, I vividly remember one of the students in that class. This girl wasn’t traditionally pretty but she carried herself with a confidence not often seen in teenaged girls, and she always made insightful comments in our discussion group. But what I remember most about her is how she always ended her sentences with “you know what I mean?” No matter what she said, she always concluded with “you know what I mean?” That’s a strange thing to remember about someone all these years later (and it does make you wonder if you’ve ever been oddly memorable to someone.)
But what does any of this have to do with supporting characters? Well, supporting characters are nothing if not true to their name—their role is to support the protagonists, by fleshing out the lives of the main characters and placing them firmly in the real world. They are the sympathetic friends, the well-meaning parents, the nosy (or noisy) neighbors. It takes a special skill to make secondary characters as memorable and believable as your protagonists, a keen eye for detail that allows these characters to jump off the page, while not allowing them to upstage the main characters. You might not remember the names of the supporting characters. But you should remember something about them, you should understand how they tie into the plot and why they are in the story in the first place. You know what I mean?
One of my favorite novels, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, has memorable and effective supporting characters.
The Marriage Plot intertwines the lives of Madeleine Hanna, an English major whose on-again, off-again relationship with her manic-depressive boyfriend Leonard Bankhead is the source of much anxiety for her friend Mitchell Grammaticus, who has been in love with Madeleine since freshman year. These three characters, and what happens to them in the year after graduation, are richly imagined and beautifully drawn, often as a result of the secondary characters surrounding and supporting them.
One such secondary character is Madeleine’s mom, Phyllida, whom the reader first meets at Madeleine’s graduation. As Madeleine walks with her parents to breakfast, she reflects on her mom:
For as long as Madeleine could remember, Phyllida had never been at a loss for words or shy about a point of etiquette. Among her friends Madeleine liked to make fun of her mother’s formality, but she often found herself comparing other people’s manners unfavorably with Phyllida’s. (Eugenides 11)
Much later in the novel, when Madeleine and Leonard move in together and later marry, the reader sees the differences in their respective backgrounds, which, coupled with his un-medicated manic-depressiveness, leads to one of the main conflicts of the novel. But this small line about Phyllida and the picture it paints of the kind of woman she is foreshadows what happens later in the novel. During Madeleine and Leonard’s honeymoon in France, Leonard goes off his medicine and has an epic breakdown before disappearing. Madeleine calls her mom for help, and her mom arrives in classic Phyllida fashion:
And then Phyllida was there, with a bellman in tow, her clothes neat and her hair in place. Everything Madeleine hated about her mother—her imperturbable rectitude, her lack of visible emotion—was exactly what Madeleine needed at the moment. She broke down, sobbing in her mother’s lap. Phyllida responded by ordering lunch brought to the room. (Eugenides 365)
Through Phyllida’s minor characterization, the reader realizes that Madeleine fell in love with someone like Leonard because of her upbringing. In other words, the stability and support her parents offered Madeleine, maddening as it could be at times, are what allowed her to believe that she could “save” Leonard (and their marriage) from his mental illness. It is Phyllida’s “imperturbable rectitude” that ultimately Madeleine draws from and leans on when her marriage takes a dark turn.
Another supporting character, drawn with a similarly astute eye for detail, is Thurston Meems, a somewhat pretentious student from the semiotics seminar class where Madeleine and Leonard meet. Thurston’s role is to juxtapose Leonard, who is a mostly silent presence in the class. He’s also a comedic character. The reader first meets him in the aforementioned class when the students are asked to introduce themselves:
The boy without eyebrows spoke up first. “Um, let’s see. I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized. Like, if I tell you that my name is Thurston Meems and that I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, will you know who I am?” (Eugenides 25)
This makes Leonard’s introduction even more powerful:
When it was the turn of the boy next to Madeleine, he said in a quiet voice…that his parents had named him Leonard, that it had seemed pretty handy to have a name, especially when you are being called to dinner, and that if anyone wanted to call him Leonard he would answer to it. (Eugenides 25)
Leonard’s simple introduction would not have had the same impact without Thurston’s preceding it. For the rest of the semester, Thurston dominates the seminar with his comically serious observations about the assigned books, saying things like, “It’s the nature of simplification to be simple.” (Eugenides 43) The rare times Leonard speaks up in class are all the more poignant when compared to Thurston’s ramblings. Thurston doesn’t make another appearance in the book until after Madeleine and Leonard have already dated and broken up. Madeleine runs into Thurston at a graduation party and finds herself unexpectedly liking him, for all the ways he is unlike Leonard. After she and Thurston end up in bed together, she realizes that:
What [she] was seeking here, with Thurston, wasn’t Thurston at all… She wanted to demean herself, and she’d done so, though she wasn’t clear on why, except that it had to do with Leonard and how much she was suffering. (Eugenides 90).
Madeleine ends up in the same place where she has always been: hopelessly in love with Leonard. Whether Thurston is nice or pretentious doesn’t matter ultimately— his role has always been to be a foil to Leonard.
Imagine that your supporting characters need to periodically check in with your protagonist: Remind me why I’m here again? What’s my role? They can’t just be talking heads. Your supporting characters need to be a vital part of the pyramid that holds up your protagonist and your storyline.