How Supporting Characters Showcase the Protagonist

contrast supporting characters

How supporting characters showcase the protagonist

All the characters are part of an interconnected web, distinguished by contrast. The contrast between characters helps define each character in four major ways: story function, archetype, theme and opposition. We constantly compare ourselves and others to everybody else. Readers do the same with fictional characters. We need context to interpret the world. The supporting characters give the context by comparison, for us to interpret the protagonist. It also allows the writer to let us know how this trait is viewed in the story universe.

External comparison

Simply show the protagonist behave in one way and have another character behave differently in the same situation. While every supporting character should showcase the main character, there can also be a mirror-character. This character shows alternative outcomes for the protagonist. Example: Gollum in Lord of the Rings.

Internal comparison

We notice traits in others that are important to us. So, what we notice in other people also tells something about ourselves. Secondly, it says something about how the protagonist views himself.

Example – Trait: frugal.

Accountant John  sat at the corner booth of the diner. 
‘That’ll be fourteen pounds.’ said the waitress. She handed him the bill and turned to attend to another customer.
John calculated the tip but decided one pound is enough. John pulled out his wallet and counted out the coins to the exact amount to pay the bill plus one pound tip.

What this tells us:

  • His job tells us he probably makes enough money to afford tipping someone. His calculation and decision tells us he’s unwilling to spend more than he has to. He’s frugal.

Now, add comparison in one direction:

Accountant John and Shop-girl Eva sat at the corner booth of the diner.
‘That’ll be fourteen pounds.’ said the waitress. She handed them the bill and turned to attend to another customer.
‘Let’s make it eighteen?’ said Eva.
John calculated the tip but decided one pound each is enough. ‘Let’s each tip her a pound.’
‘Two pounds each would be a proper tip, actually.’ said Eva. John ignored her. Eva rolled her eyes. ‘Fine, I’ll give her two pounds extra myself then.’
John shakes his head in disapproval.

What this tells us:

  • His job tells us he probably makes enough money to afford tipping someone. His calculation and decision tells us he’s unwilling to spend more than he has to. He’s frugal.
  • Eva’s generosity despite low income tells us that John is very frugal.
  • Eva’s eye roll tells us it’s not a celebrated character trait in this universe.
  • John’s head-shake tells us he believes it’s better to be frugal than to be generous.

Next, add comparison in two directions:

Accountant John, lawyer Sarah and Shop-girl Eva sat at the corner booth of the diner.
‘That’ll be fourteen pounds.’ said the waitress. She handed them the bill and turned to attend to another customer.
‘Let’s make it eighteen?’ said Eva.
John calculated the tip but decided one pound each is enough. ‘Let’s each tip her a pound.’
Sarah scoffed. ‘All she did is hand us some plates and a glass of water. I’m not tipping her for that.’
‘Two pounds would be a proper tip, actually.’ said Eva. John ignored her. Eva rolled her eyes. ‘Fine, I’ll give her three pounds extra myself then.’

What this tells us:

  • His job tells us he probably makes enough money to afford tipping someone. His calculation and decision tells us he’s unwilling to spend more than he has to. He’s frugal.
  • Eva’s generosity despite low income tells us that John is very frugal.
  • Sarah’s cheapness tells us John isn’t frugal to the point of cold heartedness.
  • Eva’s eye roll tells us it’s not a celebrated character trait in this universe.
  • John’s head-shake tells us he believes it’s better to be frugal than to be generous.

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