In any fictional universe, the world revolves around the protagonist. Any “extras”, sidekicks or love interests are very much subservient to the hero – though, if they are well-realised, they all think they’re looking out for their own interests. It’s only the writer who is leading them on to serve the hero and the narrative.
Over at the Crime Readers’ Association website, I wrote about Supporting Cast: Breathing Life into Secondary Characters. I even made reference to my favourite Hark, a vagrant webcomic.
I mentioned Cerys Carr, who started life as nothing more than a gobby teenage sister to one of my protagonists and ended up playing a major part in Code Runner. She’s also prominent in Book #3, and shows no sign of fading away.
The beauty of a well-developed supporting cast of “sidekicks” to your hero is that they can leap to the fore at any moment. In television, this may even progress to them gaining their own show – for example, Angel started life in Buffy and Frasier was part of the cast of Cheers. Joey’s leap from Friends is a much less successful example – partly, I think, because that character’s strength is in how he reacts within that specific ensemble.
A truly excellent author plans ahead that their supposedly minor characters are, in fact, pivotal. If you read only The Philosopher’s Stone, you would be incredulous that Neville Longbottom could be significant in any way to Voldemort.
In some cases, the high-profile or cult casting in a supporting role can bring an audience, like Anthony Head and Richard Wilson in Merlin. Other shows take note of the surprise success of some of their supporting characters. The rise of Castiel in Supernatural has been the result of vocal fan feedback, and The West Wing was never meant to feature Martin Sheen in such a large role.
For me, the development of all your characters beyond a name and a face is a no-brainer. If you are writing a project with longevity, whether that’s a series for television or in novels – or even if you just want your audience to make it to the end of the book – a compelling cast of characters is vital.
And who knows? Some of them may surprise you.