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Writing Supporting Characters that Matter

Photo by Flickr user Anders Nicolaysen [1]
Photo by Flickr user Anders Nicolaysen

I have a confession to make. I love reading SCD (Supporting Character Death) scenes. There’s something both cathartic and addictive about lying on my bed, fingers clutched around a book, while I sob helplessly over the death of a beloved supporting character.

So, naturally, I’m drawn to write stories where one (or more) supporting characters die tragically heroic deaths. But I don’t just want to write SCDs, I want readers to care. I want them to cry. I want them to stumble across a quote said by the supporting character before her death, and feel the stomach-tightening anguish that I feel whenever I see a shirt that reads: “I am a leaf on the wind — watch how I soar.”

In a recent manuscript, I wrote an absolutely heart-wrenching SCD (Supporting Character Death) scene. My supporting character died bravely, defending the protagonist from harm of his own making, and setting the protagonist on a whole new path. I cried while I wrote that scene. I sobbed while I edited it. And, finally, I gave it to a beta reader and waited for her to come back to me in awe and tell me how many tears she’d shed.

None, as it turns out.

In fact, she didn’t mention the death scene at all. When I asked about it, she said, “Oh. Yeah, that was sad, I guess.”

I did what anyone would do in that situation. I drank a lot of vodka, and sent my manuscript off to other beta readers who would obviously be better equipped to understand the emotional impact of my SCD.

Yeah, no. In fact, they were much less enthusiastic than my original reader.

I drank more vodka, re-read my scene (cried again), and then got to figuring out where I’d gone wrong.

The obvious conclusion was that no one cared about my supporting character dying because they weren’t invested in him living. They didn’t care about him. He didn’t matter. I cried, because I did care about him. Deeply. So, I needed to figure out how to make my readers feel the same way about him that I did. Enter Google.

I’m not sure if you know this, but there are lots of articles online about how to make your supporting characters memorable. I read a lot of them. I read until the notes I was taking became redundant. Basically, the entirety of the internet’s wisdom on supporting characters can be broken down into a simple five-point checklist.

  1. Give your supporting character a fascinating backstory.
  2. Give your supporting character a defining quality, quirk, or flaw.
  3. Give your supporting character a distinctive voice.
  4. Give your supporting character their own arc.
  5. Focus on why your supporting character is important to the protagonist.

That’s a great list, right? If you follow that list, your supporting characters will be memorable. Readers will care about them, and cry when they die. Perfect.

But…

But the supporting character in my manuscript had a fascinating backstory. He wore a fedora and a trenchcoat, and was honest to a fault. He spoke like a 1920s private eye, and had his own character arc. He inspired the protagonist to bravery in the face of danger, and wisdom in the face of anger.

Checklist: Tick, done.

According to the wisdom of the internet, everyone should already be sobbing uncontrollably at his death. And yet they weren’t. Thanks for nothing, internet.

And so I made a list of SCDs that have stuck with me over the years, with the intention of revisiting them to see what, exactly, the writers did to engender my reaction. I had a page full of character names when I came across one that stood out. A character that was different to the others. A character that didn’t so much die as float away across the ocean, never to be seen again. A character who wasn’t even alive.

Wilson!
Wilson!

In Cast Away, the 2000 movie starring Tom Hanks, Wilson the volleyball’s “death” is both traumatic and memorable. In fact, if the mention of the movie didn’t make you want to immediately scream, “Wilson!” while fighting down feelings of grief, I can only assume you haven’t seen the movie. (In which case, you really should remedy that immediately, if not sooner.)

Despite being an inanimate object, Wilson the volleyball elicits exactly the response from viewers that I would like to achieve with my own SCDs. His death is one of the most memorable moments in the film. He’s regularly referenced in pop culture. He has his own IMDB page [2]. He’s the focus of costumes, t-shirts, and memes.

So, with all that in mind, how does Wilson compare to our handy-dandy checklist above? Let’s see…

  1. A fascinating backstory. Hmmm… Actually, it’s almost like Wilson doesn’t even exist before Tom Hanks slams a bloodied palm on to a volleyball, one hour and seven minutes into the film.
  2. A defining quality. I don’t know. Does being inanimate count?
  3. A distinctive voice. Uhh… He’s a volleyball, dude. He doesn’t talk.
  4. His own arc. Yeah, no. Wilson doesn’t grow or change at all during the story. Although he does acquire some impressive twiggy hair halfway through the movie.
  5. Focus on his importance to the protagonist. Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner!

Those who haven’t seen the movie in a while (or ever) may be surprised to learn that Wilson is on-screen for less than a quarter of the film. He’s created at the one hour, seven minute mark. He floats away from a hysterical Hanks at one hour, forty-three minutes. So, how did the writers manage to make an inanimate object into a supporting character worth crying over in just thirty-six minutes?

Now, I could go through it scene by scene, and explain the progression, but the answer is really very simple: We saw exactly how much Wilson mattered to Hanks’ character, Chuck.

Wilson didn’t do anything but be himself — he couldn’t do anything but be himself; he was a volleyball. But, to Chuck, Wilson was a companion, a salve to his loneliness, a lifeline to his sanity. Chuck talked to Wilson, argued with Wilson, and took Wilson everywhere. From snippets of scenes that played out over those thirty-six minutes, we developed a connection with Wilson; an empathy.

Obviously, we didn’t empathise with Wilson as a person. Wilson was a volleyball. But we empathised with what Wilson meant to the protagonist.

We’ve all been lonely. We’ve all felt isolated and lost. And when we do, we hold on to the things that remind us who we are. Maybe it’s your dog, who’s been with you through more heartbreaks than you can count, or your Grandmother’s ring, given to you on her deathbed. Maybe it’s the cookies you baked that remind you of home, or the clock on the mantlepiece that doesn’t work but you keep because your brother gave it to you. Or maybe it’s a volleyball named Wilson.

When Wilson floats away, we cry because we know how it feels to lose someone or something that matters to us. Someone or something that has kept us sane.

And that’s where I went wrong in my manuscript.

Remember way up there, when I said I’d checked everything off the list? When I said that I’d showed my supporting character’s importance to the protagonist because he’d inspired the protagonist to bravery in the face of danger, and wisdom in the face of anger? Yeah, well that’s a load of baloney.

See, those are things the supporting character did. But, as we’ve just discussed, the supporting character doesn’t need to do anything but be himself (WWWD). The important thing is not to show what the supporting character does, but to show how those things are important to the protagonist. And that’s the ingredient my manuscript was missing.

Don’t get me wrong, those first four points on the checklist are important — backgrounds and quirks and character arcs. But it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the superficial details of our supporting characters, that we forget to fully consider point five: Why does this supporting character matter to my protagonist? And that’s the part that will make our readers connect emotionally.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a SCD scene to rewrite.

What’s your favourite Supporting Character Death scene? Have you ever killed off a supporting character? How do you make sure your supporting characters matter?

About Jo Eberhardt [3]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.

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