When I am not spending my time procrastinating writing my incredibly witty newspaper articles, I tend to dabble in the art of writing novels and, occasionally, reading them. One of the many things I have discovered in my writing adventure is that, no matter how exciting or original your plot is, if your characters fall flat, the story falls flat.
Even if your main character is amazing, complex, and three dimensional, if your secondary characters are not believable, you may as well trash your story because the reader will be able to tell that you didn’t put as much time and effort into the supporting cast as you did to your main star. It’s an expectation from audiences that secondary characters be well developed across all forms of media, including television.
As it would seem, the writers of some popular television shows have not gotten this memo; although it may be by design in some cases. The hit BBC show Sherlock has two main characters, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, who are as fleshed out and flawed as two human beings could possibly be, with intricate and interesting back stories. Their supporting characters? Not so much. We know little to nothing about any of the characters except John, Sherlock and, more recently, Mrs. Hudson (who is not a main character, just a very interesting one.)
Mrs. Hudson is many things (except your housekeeper). She used to be married to an allegedly abusive man who was executed in Florida for a double-murder. She rents a flat to Sherlock for a much lower rate because he helped ensure that her husband paid the price for his crimes. Her character has evolved from just being background noise into the quirky, unpredictable person she is today. It’s revealed in the most recent series that she used to be an exotic dancer which is, more than likely, the cause of her bad hip and has admitted to taking “herbal soothers” to alleviate her pain. All in all, Mrs. Hudson’s fire and sass are not what one would expect from her sweet, few-layers-short-of-a-lasagna exterior.
Hudders is by far the most interesting secondary character on the show. Others, such as detective inspector Greg Lestrade and Molly Hooper, come off as lacking and, well, secondary. But the question we must ask ourselves is this: could that be the writers intent?
The only reason I assume the flat back up characters are made that way on purpose is because I believe the writers are trying to put more focus on Sherlock and John, and the story they have to tell, rather than the writers not being good at what they do.
On the other hand, the writers of Supernatural appear to have given one of their secondary characters more backstory than they anticipated. The story of Castiel, angel of the Lord, was intended to be a four episode arc that blew up the face of the fandom. The fans gave him so much love that he was brought back for another season, and another, and another until he was transitioned from a guest star to a main cast member last year.
His added screen time brought about a very nicely told story of an angel willing to rebel to fight for what he believes to be right. He fell from heaven for the Winchesters (the main characters) and has struggled with his identity, his sense of self, ever since. He rebelled and stood up for the people of earth and fought against his brothers and sisters because he knew it was the right thing to do (and he did it all in an ill-fitting trench coat). He is quirky and awkward and somehow completely relatable despite the fact that he is a celestial being with no business being on earth.
Castiel is an example of the magic that can happen when a writer truly gets a character right, and he definitely deserves all of the love he gets from the fans. More than that, it shows that the writers truly listened to their fans and adapted according to their demands. Without Castiel’s introduction to the show, it’s highly likely that it would have run out of storylines a few seasons ago. His character has kept the show, and its fandom, afloat.
Main characters can only carry a show so far before the story becomes flat and less-than-believable. The Mrs. Hudsons and Castiels of modern television make shows worth watching. If networks were smart, they would hire more of the writers that make all sorts of characters come alive on screen.