“American Crime” and what it can teach writers about supporting characters

American Crime was the most riveting television series I watched this year. The diverse cast all seemed to be working at the top of their game, and the storylines and characters were multi-layered, revealing new details each week. In only lasted eleven episodes, but told viewers so much in that time.

The writers had the ability to make me care about almost all the characters, except for a few who were clearly there just to serve a single purpose. The writers showed that even the minor characters were important to someone. A minor character may have passed in and out of the main story briefly, but in that character’s own life, that interaction with the main storyline continued to echo, changing them and the families and communities.

Even characters who were difficult to like were shown to mean something to someone. Some of the side stories were as fascinating and emotionally rich as the main story.

Why is this important to novelists?

Because too many times, supporting characters in a novel exist only in terms of their service to the main character. They have no independent reality; the reader has no sense that they have a life beyond the scenes in which they interact with the main character.

I’m not saying that every minor character needs a strongly developed background, nor am I saying that the reader needs to see every element of that background. But it’s a good exercise for the writer to think about the larger frame of the character’s background and personality…because that will have an impact on the way they interact with the main character. And when a writer knows more about a character, they write the character in a more realistic way, creating a more three-dimensional person.

Shallow supporting characters can undermine the work a writer has done in creating the story by making the book feel thin, by making the main character’s conversations feel stilted, unnatural, or fake.

Fleshing out supporting characters can also impact a book’s main characters. One writer I worked with some years ago created terrific protagonists but their secondary characters were always less well-developed. I remember that in one novel, there were three decent supporting characters, two of whom appeared only in the first half of the book; one appeared only in the second half. There were no connections between any of them. They each related only to the main characters.

I suggested that two of these characters be merged, creating a subplot that crossed from one half of the book to the other. We also introduced the two supporting characters to each other. Inspired, the writer built more scenes involving these characters, which led to the main characters displaying greater emotional range. Plus, the writer was able to use the supporting characters to help advance the plot since they now existed for more than a couple of isolated scenes.

So pay attention to the supporting cast and remember, everyone may not necessarily be “the hero of their own story,” but everyone definitely has a story of their own.