In the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, Norrington was a terrific character played by an excellent actor, and he had a huge story arc--much larger than any of the main characters (with the exception, maybe, of Elizabeth). But by the third film they seemed to have no idea how to use him.
So how does his story wrap up? He dies to help Elizabeth midway through the third film. He doesn't even play a part the finale. Don't get me wrong, I loved those movies, but the character deserved a bigger part, because he was interesting.
There's a book I read many years ago I remember only because I disliked it so much (I won't give the title or author--it's oop and there's no use kicking the dead). In it, Our Hero stumbles through the story with two old Native American guys who help him out. Then, when it's time for the final confrontation, those two old guys introduce a third character to accompany him into the final fight while they stayed behind.
Did I care about this new character? Nope. I barely cared about the ones the author had written about for the previous 300 pages.
Both examples lead me (in my roundabout way) to this: a book has to bear the weight of my attention. That's what reading feels like--I'm leaning on the book and the parts that interest me get the full brunt of my weight. If the plot is a little weak, a book can compensate with strong characters or a fascinating setting. Or beautiful language, if I'm in that mood. But all I ask is that the book hold up my interest.
Obviously, interesting supporting characters bear the weight of a great deal of a reader's attention, depending on how invested we get in them. Cutting them off too early is like sitting on a chair when one of the legs buckles (Not that, ahem, this happens to me often). It's also a failure to pay off the story on a micro scale, just to tie it back to the Payoffs post linked above. It's disappointing.
But can I disagree with myself on this?
Of course I can! I can think of two exceptions to the "don't wrap up interesting characters too quickly" idea. The first is when the character's absence is a vital part of the story. When Gandalf "dies" in the Mines of Moria, his absence has a powerful effect on the story. That empty space becomes an arch--a very strong structural shape. (Okay, I'll drop the tortured metaphor now.)
The second is when the tone of the story requires a Joe Bob Briggs (may his career rest in peace) -type attitude ("Anybody can die at any moment.") One of the strengths of, say, A Song Of Ice And Fire is the precarious nature of the character's situations. They aren't like protagonists in other books--people you expect to follow through a story from start to finish; they're more at risk.
Poor Rob Stark. He'd have been the hero of a different book.
And with their position in the story so precarious, the characters in ASOIAF bring a sense of danger to a book in a way the audience would never get with PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (and probably wouldn't want). The protagonists in ASOIAF inhabit a different kind of world and bring a different kind a thrill (a non-adventure thrill). That thrill holds up a lot of my interest.
Well, what do you think, crazy or stupid?