What are supporting characters?
The function of supporting characters is to carry the story forward. They also allow us to get to know the protagonist better. Every person in the group should carry their own weight by bringing knowledge or by having a unique skill to the table that pays off later in the story. Each person stands for some quality, an aspect of the story’s theme that transcends the narrow significance he holds as an individual.
Functions supporting characters may fulfil
- provide local colour
- Highlight unique aspects of the world
- Reveal valuable clues
- Give important information
- Provide skill
- Introduce emotions
- Create atmosphere
- Provide motivation (offer plot hooks)
- Highlight a feature in another character by contrast.
- The mirror- character, which shows what could/should or might happen to the protagonist. Example: Frodo vs Gollum
How to create a supportive character
1 Make sure your protagonist is fully fleshed out.
2 Individualise each character based on contrast, theme and opposition.
3 Flesh out their backstory to make them three-dimensional.
Varied: be varied and clearly identifiable ( i.e.: physical distinctions, nuances, personalities, interests)
Affect:The protagonist and the supporting characters are able to affect each other.
Multifaceted: They are three-dimensional, like the protagonist. i.e. hidden weakness, secrets, hobbies, affairs etc.
Point out: make the supporting character stand out by having him associated with a key aspect of the plot.
Intersect with the protagonist: either in a competitive or a cooperative way.
Reasonable: They should not perform random actions or randomly change motivations or goals. The goals of the supporting character is related to past experiences and the capabilities of the character.
Exist: an interesting supporting character has a life outside of the time spent with the protagonist and already had a life before the main character met him.
How to handle a large cast
First, remove redundant characters
Separate the primary characters from the secondary characters as secondary ones are more likely to be redundant. It may be helpful to draw out a spider chart with the protagonist in the center and supporting characters around him. Then, try to answer the following two questions for every character:
- Does he do anything other characters already do?
Is it overlapping? Then ask yourself what this character has that you felt the book needed and give that trait to the more established character). Merge characters together if they work the same angle or fulfil the same role.
- Does he take the story in a new direction? This can happen when your mind is trying to sneak a new book into you. Separate this story from the one you’re working on. It can also be a fantastic new layer for the existing story and use it to enrich the book.
If your character is helpfully fulfilling roles no other characters do or adding layers to your story that make it all the richer, cuddle him tight and never let him go.
Then, Make each one important, recognisable and memorable
Make them vary in age, gender and social class. This also helps to appeal to a larger audience.
Indicate the importance of each particular character by naming him, associating him with an important plot point, hurt him or make him likeable by having him struggle to do the right thing or possibly obtain enough power to potentially change the outcome of the story.
Help your reader remember them by mentioning them every 40 pages or so and by tagging important characters with easily recognisable features such as a limp or stutter.
Pressfield, S. (2016) Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit
Staats, R. (1999) A quick guide to creating memorable non-player characters.
Truby, J. (2007) The Anatomy of Story