Supporting Characters aren't Useless Lamps
posted by Kylie Leane on November 13, 2016

Supporting Characters/Cast aren't Useless Lamps

This past weekend I saw the movie ‘Arrival’ – I cannot stress enough how beautiful, inspiring and visually stunning this movie was and I highly recommend going to see it, even now, I am still finding myself thinking about the contents of the movie.
I won’t talk much about it, because it is a movie that very much needs to be experienced without spoilers for the full impact to be felt.
However, I watch a lot of youtube reviewers and a couple of them have mentioned something that got me thinking about a topic that pops up in my thoughts from time to time: Supporting/Secondary Characters in Books (or movies).

In the movie Arrival, one could say that the main character is very much our heroine Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), as she carries the movie—she is supported by Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner).
A couple receivers have mentioned that they ‘don’t know why Ian Donnelly’s character is even in the movie, that he ‘doesn’t do anything’ for the plot.
I found these comments quite interesting, as quite often such comments are directed at female supporting characters in old science fiction, or older fantasy novels, and sometimes even adventure novels – what instantly springs to mind are some of my favorite E.E Doc Smith novels, the LEN’s men series, and even the Pip and Flinx novels by Alan Dean Foster.
However, in Arrival, the role of ‘supporting character’ was reversed. The female was the main character and the male was the support. It was almost so classically science fiction I sat there in the movies just gaping. I felt like I’d opened one of my father’s old books and dived right into it, but with reversed roles, and perhaps, this was what was throwing people off?
But I digress…
I have always seen an immense importance to supporting characters.

Writing a novel is like building a house.
The foundations are the plot your characters are going to be acting within.
Then comes the timber structure, your support cast, who will hold up your main cast, the roof.
Everything else you put onto or into your house are built around those things.
But in my mind, a strong supporting cast will always hold up a main cast of characters.
Often in reference too female characters I hear the term ‘useless as a lamp’ or ‘can be replaced with a lamp’ tossed around (not to be mixed up with a ‘lampshade hanging or lampshading’ something entirely different). A useless character who does nothing to move the plot forward but just stands around looking pretty, or being the ‘love interest’ to a male main hero.
This *really* annoys me, this concept. To me it degrades the whole foundation of a supporting female, and the very idea of romance and love as if it’s a BAD THING. Which it isn’t.
Whether a supporting character is a male or a female (or an alien, often in my case) being there to wrap a blanket around a hero (or heroine), to offer words of advice, to bounce off dialogue, to hand a weapon to them in battle—to be a companion—this is not some token thing you can call a ‘lamp’.

While I’ll agree that some women (and men) are written ideally to be a simple ‘love interest’ in a novel, it is my opinion that today we seem to wear glasses shaded with a glare toward anything that coats our own bias. Therefore, if a reader expects to find a ‘lamp’ style supporting character in a novel, they will find one, no matter what a writer does.
I mean…
Have you seen TV Tropes? Ouch. That place is terrifying and hilarious all at once.

I’m by no means going to claim I know anything about writing.
I don’t, honestly, I don’t. Sure, I’ve written two books, and a couple unpublished ones…but writing is still something that baffles me. I continue to grow and learn about its twists and turns every time I sit down at my desk and crank up Office Word. It’s an adventure.
However, I adore storytelling and I believe a good story reflects life through its pages.
In life we have those around us who support us. Our secondary characters if you will, in our own novel.
As writers, it is up to us to write true, honest, wonderfully written supporting characters who help our heroes and heroines along their journey.
We shouldn’t be afraid that they appear to be ‘doing nothing’ sometimes, because sometimes, by doing nothing—they’re doing everything the hero needs them to do by just existing in the first place.
And besides, like me, if they really aren’t *that* important – just delete them or shove them into another novel. Problem solved. Dust your hands and get on with the story.

Interesting reading on this topic:
< a href=””>Gender Incompetence Trope

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