When the Supporting Cast has More Visible Growth Than the Main Character

NoteOnce again, a reminder that the Alternate Version Blogfest is happening on April 1st.  This is your chance to be Hemmingway or Austen.  Go take a look!

I recently read two books in which secondary characters underwent more visible development than the main character. (Warning, some moderate spoilers for Story Time and Dark Dude, although I don't think it ruins the book.)

For example, the main character of Story Time by Edward Bloor is Kate, who is forced to attend a new school with crazy teachers and rumors of demons. The book centers around Kate and her efforts survive the school and figure out its secrets.

While Kate has plenty of adventures, the most visible character development in the book occurs in two supporting characters. Her mother, June, fights her severe social anxiety and eventually overcomes it for Kate's sake. The other growth character is Kate's uncle George (who is actually two years younger than Kate). He starts out as a nerdy sidekick, but at the new school he comes into his own and learns to step into the spotlight.

The other book I read was Dark Dude, by Oscar Hijuelos. The main character here is Rico, a Cuban boy from New York City who runs away to live with his friend in Wisconsin. He meets new people and gains a new perspective on life before returning home. However, Rico ends the book in pretty much the same situation he started in, while a very visible character change occurs in his friend Jimmy, who breaks his heroin addiction and learns to harness his talents and start a new life.

I wonder if it’s a coincidence that both these books are YA. Stories like these might fit into the overall YA theme because part of becoming an adult involves helping others reach their potential.  But while I enjoyed seeing these secondary characters develop, part of me also wanted more visible change in the main character. Especially in Dark Dude, I wanted a more concrete manifestation of the lessons Rico learned in Wisconsin.

Have you read any books where the supporting cast has more visible growth than the main character? How did you feel about it? At what point does a strong secondary character arc distract from the main story?



  1. The example I can think of right now is in Shiver, where Grace doesn't go through much change but the mean girl, I forget her name, shows more growth and change.

  2. I quite like stories where the "main" character is actually a window into someone else's journey. But then I like all sorts of things that writers are advised not to do ;)

  3. I find it more distracting when the secondary characters don't change and are just there to move the main character along their arc.

  4. I think this is a very smart observation, and something that occurs more than most people know.

    If you're interested in exploring this further, I strongly suggest you get a copy of Rust Hills' book, "Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular". Specifically, read the chapters titled, 'Moving Characters, as against Fixed Characters', and 'The Series Regulars, as against the Guest Stars'.

    This tendency not only affects series drama, it affects writers who get a good deal of their storytelling knowledge from watching TV. Books that are written as, or intended to become part of, a series, also have this same problem: the main characters serve as the conduit by which the actual story is told, rather than being moved by the story themselves.

    Famously, of course, great authors tend to get around this potential problem by making the narrator/observer NOT the main character. The Great Gatsby comes to mind as perhaps the most obvious example.

  5. I understand exactly what you mean. Or often times the side character is simply more interesting, as if the author were allowing this character to take all the risks but not allowing his/her main character the opportunity to challenge himself, to overcome x challenge.

    I remember reading Story Time. Bloor always writes some chilling stuff. I remember loving George. It's so important to see that character growth precisely because you want to root for somebody, you want to see them mold into something fresh, to meet your hopeful expectations.

  6. I think every great story has an expanded character list as the story develops.

    I'm reminded of movies with big name actors that seem to have tight close ups as they deliver their lines. These shots exclude the contributory reality around the character, therefore reducing or confining the grandness of scope.

    In contemporary novels, there appears to be a "superman" trend, focusing more on the protagonist as the be all and end all of a story.

    Where would Sherlock Holmes be without Dr. Watson? Captain Aubrey without Dr. Maturin? Vampires without Werewolves (not exactly congruent, but you get my point)

    Secondary character developement is the art of the parallel arc-line, growing each character within sight of each other.

    My current work is incredibly dependent on maintaining multiple character arcs, and in doing so, I feel I have a novel that give a wide vista for choice and appeal.

    I just came across your blog and enjoyed it your observations and style.

    All the Best,