I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Friday, July 8, 2011

Supporting Characters...and [shudder] calculus.

Three things I'll never forget about my high school pre-calc teacher:

1) How he only had half a thumb on one hand.

2) The way he always sang his way into the classroom.

3) The "good effort" he wrote on pretty much every test I took that semester.

Uh, yeah, “good effort.” Translation: “Obviously you have no clue what you’re doing, but I can tell by the number of eraser marks you tried. You really did.”

Truthfully, getting good grades always came pretty easily for me. Don’t know why. I’m no Einstein – though, sometimes on humid days my hair probably resembles his. But I never really struggled in school…

Until pre-calc. Seriously, unit after unit, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around…whatever it was I was supposed to be wrapping my brain around. See, even now, I can’t think of a single pre-calc concept to offer as proof that I actually took the class. Think, Mr. Rogers in a boxing ring. That's how un-adept I was at the subject. (And I love cardigan sweaters, too, so the metaphor works on more than one level!)

And my teacher? He knew it. He caught my blank stares, completely saw through my fake nods of understanding when I’d stay after class for help. But here’s a fourth thing I’ll never forget about him:

I’ll never forget the day he looked me in the eye and said, “Melissa, don’t take calculus next year.”

I think I did a simultaneous sigh-and-laugh thing that came out a snort. “Gotcha, you’re saying I’m not smart enough.”

“No,” he replied. “I’m saying you’re not a math person. You’re creative. You’re a writer. So don’t go banging your head, trying to grasp something not meant for you. Be who you are.”

His words, heavy with wisdom, deserve unpacking in a blog post all their own. But today, as I look back, I realize what an amazing “supporting character” that teacher was in my life story at that time.  He didn’t show up on every “page.” His only “scene" was a meager 45 minutes a few times a week. But as he impacted one aspect of my life – my academic life – he enriched my overall life story.

Supporting characters in our WIPs need to do the same thing. Whether they show up in 12 scenes or 40, whether they’re tied into the main plot, a subplot or layer, they need to add to the entire story. In many cases, they will fill a hole in a main character’s life, play a role vital to the lead’s journey.

Or they may do the opposite of what my teacher did. They may contribute to the lead's undoing. They may stand in the way of the hero’s noble quest, rip apart the heroine’s greatest dream, propel the POV character into the blackest of black moments.

Either way, when well-written these supporting characters add depth and dimension to our stories and especially to our hero/heroines.

Probably I should end this blog post here. Or list some well-known, well-written or well-played supporting characters. Or provide tips for writing supporting characters.

Instead, I can’t help but come full circle and reflect for a moment: I have so many incredible “supporting characters” in my life. Some are constant – like my family and best friends. Others, like my pre-calc teacher, show up only for a season. But each one contributes to my life story in their own, unique way.

And I have to ask myself, in whose life am I a supporting character? And how could I be a more active, intentional supporting character in the lives of those around me?

How easy it is to think of myself only as the main character in my own story. But oh how the landscape of our lives broaden when we see ourselves as a supporting character in dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. That's a story I want to live.

Let’s chat! Who is one of your favorite supporting characters in any book or movie? And for those feeling reflective: Who has been a supporting character in your life? In whose life do you want to fulfill a supporting role?

Melissa Tagg


  1. Melissa, you have some of the best blog posts! I leave laughing or crying, or both, and I always leave with things to think about.

    I'm not a math person either. I barely passed pre-Alegbra.

    I love that your teacher told you not to take Calculus. Wish mine had of. :)

  2. I am one of those Math people. I am in school right now to be a high school physics and calculus teacher. My weakness is and always has been in mechanic or any type of handy man work. My father and brothers are master carpenters, electricians, mechanics and plumbers. I can barely change a tire.

    I had a similar experience in high school with a teacher encouraging me to embrace who I was and become the best me I could be. I will never forget him. Great supporting character in my life. I wonder where he is now.

  3. Melissa, if you write it, I will read it.
    I am not a math person. I believe I am the original carrier of math anxiety.
    I'm trying to answer your questions . . . but first, I want to go read your post again. Be right back . . .
    I did have supportive characters in my life -- journalism professors who encouraged me as a writer/reporter and then others (you know who you are!) who encouraged me when I crossed over to the Dark Side of fiction! Sometimes supporting characters play such pivotal roles.

  4. Oh thank you, Jessica! Yeah, I'm pretty sure I major weight lifted off my shoulders when I realized I didn't have to take a single math class my senior year of high school!!

  5. Thanks for reading, Brett! When you become a calc teacher, be on the lookout for students with really confused looks on your faces...and here's a tip for making them feel better: put stickers on their tests! My pre-calc teacher always did that!

  6. Thanks, Beth! Supporting characters in our writing lives are so critical...(or maybe I'm just a needy writer)...but I can't imagine doing the "dark side" thing without people (like you!) encouraging me! :)

  7. Melissa, you have your own Field of Dreams followers. ;)

    Math and I are not friends. I barely passed geometry. After that, I didn't need another math. In college, I took a Foundations of Mathematics that made no sense to me even though I scored an A in it. I'm a creative thinker. Hubby, on the other hand, rocks the math. That's why we're a great fit. :D

    Supporting characters...hmm, I'm not quite sure who fits that bill for me. So many people have guided and supported me that not one particular person stands out.

  8. Melissa, what a powerful blog! I wish I'd had a math teacher like yours who could encourage me to explore my strengths. Math was NOT one of them. I barely passed Geometry, and barely barely passed Algebra 2. My math in college consisted of a class I
    entitled, "Math for Dummies." You were blessed to have that pre-calc teacher!

    For me, I've had some wonderful supporting characters, a number of "older women" who helped direct me in wise paths during and after college. God's also placed current supporting characters who are giving me wings to explore this dream to write. Loved, LOVED your post!

  9. Math. Ugh. Enough said.

    I have many who played supporting roles in my writing life, but probably the one who encouraged me most was the first editor I submitted a shortstory to. She bought my story and said to keep at it, that I had talent. That was enough to make me never look back.

  10. Thanks for the comments, folks. I'm reading them a day late since I spent the bulk of yesterday tubing, canoeing and pulling seaweed out of my shoes. :)

    So glad to know I'm not the only math-impaired person around. :)

  11. This is so dear and so well-done. Yes, you are a writer. I will never forget the good visuals/hearables of your pre-calc. teacher and his inestimable wisdom. You go, Melissa!

  12. Thanks, Dee! Hope you're enjoying your travels!!