I found this deliriously titled how-to for writing supporting characters just as I’ve been struggling with creating my own. The point about “characters make plot” really hits home as I find I’ve been trying to force one to satisfy my vanity.
Because my protagonist and most of the other characters who Do Stuff(™) are men, I really want to write a female friendship in here to alleviate the sausagefest. My excuse is my other POV character, the control-freaky gentry lady, is stressed, overworked, and about to get a long-term guest she doesn’t like, so I’d like her to have a confidante in the house.
Turns out I’m jumping through narrative hoops trying to make this happen. I want the characters to be near equals, but there were genuinely no other women in the family, so I’m thinking, maybe a high-ranking servant like a housekeeper? And if I can make her a closet heretic of some sort (proto-Quaker? Cunning woman? [I’ve been reading too much Religion and the Decline of Magic]), she’d be an excuse to show off my mad research skills…
But despite multiple test drafts she doesn’t end up doing anything apart from react to the gentry lady. My efforts to give her depth are failing because while I can imagine what she is I’ve not been clever enough of a writer to make her do anything (housekeeping notwithstanding).
Unfortunately (?) my research reveals that most 16th century servants were men, and the real-life gentry lady’s brother is perfectly positioned to take the role of lead servant: he was caretaker of the house when she and her family left England so it’s not too much of a logical stretch to have him as the “steward” (many younger siblings acted as servants for their elders during this time). Also, as he becomes caretaker I already have a built-in finale for the 3 “beats” Wendig describes.
So, not a woman confidante but he’s certainly in her corner, and he does stuff (like flub the accounts so the gentry lady gets to show off her mad skills). Also easier to write, because I’m more familiar with the sibling dynamic than the mistress-servant relationship: I’ve tried both approaches and wound up with one colorless, stilted scene with the housekeeper but a delightful bickering 800 word ramble with the brother.
The real problem is that I’m letting my own obstinate desire to write someone I WISH were there instead of someone who will move the story forward.
There’s at least other woman in the story I can have her turn to, a former employer who’s unimpressed with her husband’s spirit conjuring, so there’s fodder there for complaint and conflict, but I’m not sure I can get her in there 3 times. Back to the drawing board…