Years ago I remember seeing Bob Newhart on the Tonight Show. At that time, Newhart had a very popular tv show called “The Bob Newhart Show.” Johnny Carson, the host, asked Newhart, “Why do all the supporting actors get the best jokes?” Newhart answered, “But I get the credit.”
Years later I read a story about Jason Alexander, the actor who played George on Seinfeld. He was told that he would not be needed for an episode of Seinfeld. At that, he went to Jerry and said, “If I am not going to be needed for all the episodes, I am going to leave the show.” Seinfeld agreed and Jason stayed with the show.
Those two stories made me come to a conclusion. All the successful-and lasting-situation comedies had one thing in common. They were ensemble pieces. In other words, these sitcoms had a regular group of characters supporting the star. But the star didn’t do all the jokes. The jokes were equally distributed among the group.
From the very beginning, this principal has held true: The Lucille Ball Show, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Show, Laverne and Shirley, Seinfeld, Friends. On and on it goes. Occasionally a show where the star gets all the jokes is put on. It doesn’t last.
How does this apply to a novel? A novel is an ensemble of characters, each with her own role. Just because the sidekick is playing second-fiddle doesn’t mean she should have second-fiddle dialogue.
Here’s some ways for the reader to remember the supporting characters. Neil Gaiman suggests that each character should have their own sound, their own dialogue. And maybe while writing that character, give them a theme song. They do this in the movies.
Neil Gaiman also suggests that the writer might want to give each character a funny hat. Now, he isn’t suggesting the writer be literal. It is a way to make characters memorable. Like she always wears purple because she thinks she’s a royal. He has tattoos up the bazooka. Her hair could literally be a bee’s nest. His nose is so long everybody calls him Schnoz. (For a private eye, that might be a great name.)
Another thing to keep in mind: don’t give several characters names that begin with the same letter. How memorable would my characters in “Chad and the Surfboard” be if I started their names with a c?
Carol, best friend
Conor, the man who saves her from the sea
Callan, the gang lord
Not very. And if they live in a town that begins with a c like Calgary, I’ll be in real trouble.