What are supporting characters? When I first think of the term, images come to mind of behind-the-scenes people. The ones without whom the main characters couldn’t function. The unsung heroes of our heroes. These people get credit sometimes, but it’s usually short lived and anti-climactic.
So who are these folks? One of the best known supporting characters (if I may reference Lord of the Rings again) is Samwise Gamgee. He puts Frodo back on his feet time after time. At first you can see the appreciation and love Frodo has for his gardener. But as the ring began to take hold of Frodo, he starts to take Sam for granted; he even tries to send him home when Gollum frames Sam for stealing the Lembas bread.
Does Sam give up? Of course not. Because his character is good. Sam never betrays Frodo during his quest to destroy the ring. Sam does everything in his power to make that journey comfortable and successful.
A supporting character like Sam is one that has spot-on intuition and has impeccable observing powers. Sam knows that they can’t trust Smeagol and he knows when Frodo has reached the end of his rope. Sam is there to keep Frodo moving forward. One of my favorite Samwise quotes is “Come on Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” Ugh. It gets me every time.
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That’s one type of supporting character. But that’s not the only kind.
We also have the supporting villain. Shall we stick to the LOTR trend? Grima Wormtongue is a creep. If Samwise uses his words for encouragement and support, Wormtongue uses his words for deceit and manipulation. He destroys King Theoden’s mind, body, and spirit in the name of counsel. Soon the king is possessed by Saruman and is no longer functioning as the ruler of his realm.
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Supporting villains have similar traits as supporting…good guys? I can’t really use “character,” because they’re both characters. Anyway, the traits are similar: intuition and observation. Wormtongue needs to make Theoden’s subjects think that Theoden is still in control while simultaneously undermining his rule. He must have done that when he first arrived in Rohan so that Theoden didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late, but we don’t get to see that part of the story. He also has to keep Theoden alive so that Wormtongue’s influence on the country doesn’t die with the king.
These two examples show the importance of strong supporting characters. Without these people, you might as well throw the plot out the window, too. Even in one-man movies like Cast Away we have Wilson, a genius supporting character who has zero lines.
There are a million other types of supports; the best friend, the significant other, the crazy family member, the coworker, et cetera. But I think I’ve made the point. Characters are humans or based on humans if they aren’t, and humans are social creatures. We gain understanding through the people around us, and they make us who we are. Without supporting characters, we won’t have anything to judge the goodness (or badness) of the main character.