Great Supporting Characters Can Make Your Main Character Shine

When I get asked about my favorite characters, I often think about those in the supporting roles. But when I looked back at the books I read as a child, my eyes were open to the storytelling craft of the authors who used secondary characters to heighten our connection with the main characters. Many children still read Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and it will probably remain a classic for years to come. The main character, Wilber the pig,would have died early if it wasn’t for Charlotte the spider. We see Wilber’s growth and development as he interacts with Charlotte throughout the story. Charlotte teaches him about life, love, and friendship, becoming a sort of mother figure for him. Without Charlotte, Wilber wouldn’t have grown and changed into the pig so many people love and adore. Charlotte left her impact on me, too—even today, I never kill a spider unless it poses a threat. Another supporting character that makes a good foil for the main character is Gurgi in The Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. Gurgi can be described as a nicer, more timid and hairier version of Gollem, from The Lord of the Rings. Gurgi’s obsession with food and other annoying tendencies frustrate Taran, the main character. In these situations we see some of Taran’s flaws and also connect with him more as we think about the Gurgis in our own lives. At the time I was reading this, my little brother resembled Gurgi in every way, even the hair. My favorite supporting character by far is Heart’s Blood in The Pit Dragon Chronicles by Jane Yolen. Heart’s Blood is a combination of the loyalest of pets and the best of friends. Reared by Jakkin, a slave boy living on an outer planet, Heart’s Blood is a dragon who would give everything for the boy she loves. It was from their relationship that I had my first understanding of sacrifice and salvation. A word of caution for those of us who want to write great supporting characters: Don’t let a secondary character outshine your main character. Even though I fondly remember these secondary characters, I related more to the main characters—the awkward and scared Wilber, the annoyed Taran who struggled to be a hero, the struggling Jakkin who wanted to escape from bondage. So as you’re writing your stories and developing your main character’s personalities, remember to spend time forming your secondary characters, too. One of them might just be the spark that makes your book shine... read more

Overthinking the First Line – An Author’s Dilemma

It is true an author needs to consider what will grab a reader in the first few pages, but what about the very first sentence? Do you stop reading if the first sentence isn’t interesting? Probably not, but if you’re a writer, you need to consider your prospective audience, especially if they’re twelve and younger. Here are a few first lines to ponder: “It was a dark and stormy night.” After reading this line, what do you think the story will be about? Vampires? Zombies? Pirates? Or maybe it’s a tragic love story. Basically we have no idea unless we were coherent enough to look on the front cover and see this is the first line of A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle. In 1962, when A Wrinkle in Time was published, first lines were probably not as important as they seem to be today, at least for those of us who are trying to get published. It would be rare indeed to see a book published today that starts with just a comment about the weather. But I have to admit this line sets the perfect scene for what happens next and has become a classic for children and adults. “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.” This line was published in 1964 in The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. It gives us a more insightful view of the coming story. From this one sentence we know the basic information about the main character—he wants to be a hero, but has to do boring work instead. What middle school boy couldn’t relate to that? “I was seven and living in Los Angeles when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and my first vivid memories are of how happy and excited everyone was.” This line comes from Malie Maloy’s, The Apothecary, published in 2011. First, I want to say I loved this book. Any story with magical realism set in another decade is a hit with me. But I think this first line gives us an excellent example of the author’s dilemma. In this sentence we get a hint of time and place, but not much else. The majority of the book is set when the main character is a teenager in England, so this first part of the book is pretty much backstory. It is needed backstory, but I would’ve liked... read more

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