Outlander novelist Diana Gabaldon between Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan — who, in their roles as born-two-centuries-apart couple Claire and Jamie, interact with many memorable supporting characters in the Outlander TV series. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images.)
I support the idea that supporting characters are important.
They’re a big part of the world authors build in their novels; they’re needed for the protagonists to interact with; and they’re frequently quite interesting in their own right.
What they’re often NOT is super-three-dimensional. Why? In most novels, of course, less space is devoted to a supporting character than to a book’s star, so there’s less space to really flesh out secondary players. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because somewhat-one-dimensional characters can be quite memorable in their somewhat-one-dimensional-ness.
I noticed this while currently reading the ninth Outlander novel, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone. Diana Gabaldon’s riveting series with time-travel elements is chock-full of distinctive supporting characters, with a notable Bees example the strict, stiff, religious, judgmental Elspeth Cunningham — a woman in her 60s or 70s who’s among the settlers living near the Fraser family in 18th-century North Carolina.
Actually, Elspeth becomes a bit more nuanced as the novel goes on. That can happen with supporting characters, as is the case with nosy neighbor Rachel Lynde of L.M. Montgomery’s wonderful Anne of Green Gables and several of its sequels. She morphs from a gossiping busybody to kind of likable.
Very likable yet mostly one-note — as supporting characters often are — is Helen Burns of Charlotte Bronte’s iconic Jane Eyre. That suffering young friend of Jane’s at the miserable Lowood institution is kind, patient, forgiving, and near-saintly. She almost feels more like a symbol than a human being, but stays in the reader’s mind.
Much less saintly is Flintwinch in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, who ruthlessly uses the secrets he knows to gain power over people and get ahead in life.
Not quite so evil but definitely fraudulent are “the duke” and “the dauphin” — the colorful conmen encountered by Mississippi River travelers Huck and Jim in Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Speaking of on-the-water novels, the cast of Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick includes Starbuck — the Quaker first mate who’s a “voice of reason” on the Pequod ship. (It’s a small role, but Captain Ahab’s underling would become the novel’s star of stars of sorts as the namesake for the Starbucks coffee chain.)
Another minor character who makes a major splash is Flicka, a teen girl suffering from a serious disease. She is fatalistic, funny, and charismatic in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That — a compelling novel that takes a well-deserved smack at America’s profit-driven medical system.
Death is even more pronounced in Nikolai Gogol’s ultra-quirky Dead Souls, whose supporting characters include the glib, rakish, lying Nozdryov.
And it’s hard to forget Otto Katz — a Jewish-born Catholic priest who’s an atheist (and a drunk) in Jaroslav Hasek’s hilarious The Good Soldier Svejk.
I realize I’ve only scratched the surface here. Any supporting characters you’d like to mention? Anything you’d like to say about the role of secondary players in novels?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about an alternate universe of tiny development — is here.