Creating the Cast: The Web of Characters Populating the Story World


Understanding the web

You may have fallen in love with a particular kind of person or character but remember this: every word in the story must carry its weight and move the story forward. Characters exist to fulfil particular roles. One role may be fulfilled by more than one character.

Every non-main character in the cast is a unique version of the protagonist‘s central moral problem. Each non-main character exists solely to play a specific necessarily story role and to contrast with the protagonist to show him better. Every person in the group should carry their own weight by bringing knowledge or by having a unique skillĀ  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.

Creating support characters

The roles of supporting characters:

  1. provide local colour
  2. Highlight unique aspects of the world
  3. provide valuable clues
  4. provide information
  5. provide skill
  6. introduce emotions
  7. create atmosphere
  8. provide motivation (offer plot hooks)
  9. Highlight a feature in another character by contrast.
  10. The mirror- character, which shows what could/should or might happen to the protagonist if s/he takes a particular path. Example: Frodo vs Gollum

Now let’s take a look at the characteristics of supporting characters. Supporting characters should be varied. They have the ability to affect the main character. He should be multifaceted and point (or stand) out from the crowd of flat characters. He intersects with your main characters. He is a reasonable person, who thinks. Lastly but no less important, he exists and already had a life before the main character met him. The word “vampire” is a handy trick to remember the different aspects of support characters.


Varied: be varied and clearly identifiable ( i.e.: physical distinctions, nuances, personalities, interests)
Affect: the main character should be able to take actions which allow or inhibit the supporting characters from accomplishing their goals.
Multifaceted: i.e. hidden weakness, secrets, hobbies, affairs
Point out: make the supporting character stand out by having him associated with a key aspect of the plot
Intersect: either in a competitive or a cooperative way
Reasonable: the actions must make sense in the context of the plot and the story world. 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 main characters.

The steps

1 Keep in mind that all the characters are part of an interconnected web, distinguished by contrast.

Within the web, each helps to define the others. The contrast between them helps define each character in four major ways: story function, archetype, theme and opposition. Theme is your view of how to act proper in the world.

2 Individualise each character based on theme and opposition.

To do this, you must have a clear picture of the moral problem at the heart of the premise. Play out the various ways the moral problem can be shown through opposition. Create a group of people who force the hero to deal with the central moral problem.

3 Build the protagonist into a multilayered, complex person.

Check out more info on building a protagonist here.

4 Create the antagonist in detail.

Read more about creating an antagonist here.

5 Apply character techniques for building conflict.

All about conflict, right here.

Handling a large cast

Tip 1: focus on just a few characters, say three or four. Make them varied in age, gender and social class to appeal to a larger audience.

Tip 2: Indicate the importance of a particular character:

Make him a viewpoint character, give him a name, make him powerful enough to potentially change the outcome of the story, hurt him or make him likeable by having him struggle to do the right thing.

Tip 3: Help your reader remember the important characters.

– Use alternating view points

– Visit or mention a character at least once in every 40 pages

– Tag each character with an easily recognisable feature such as a limp

Trimming the cast of excessive characters

Trimming the cast every now and then will help clean up your story. At some point you will find yourself looking at a large group of characters you have brought to life. You probably grew attached to all of them, but that doesn’t necessarily make them valuable to the story. This section explains how to check your cast and trim the characters who are not adding to the story.

First, separate the primary characters from the secondary characters. Obviously, redundant characters are more like to be secondary ones. Then, try to answer the following two questions:

  • 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.

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