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Great Supporting Characters Can Make Your Main Character Shine

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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 brighter.

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