Writers Notebook: 5 Things About Supporting Characters

1. Supporting characters are pretty darn important.

Yes, your protagonist is king. No protag, no story. But no novel is complete without a host of supporting characters that will influence your protag’s decisions and/or complicate matters for her. Unless your protagonist lives in a bubble, chances are her life is sometimes a consequence of the people in her immediate circle.

2. Your supporting character doesn’t exist just to create conflict or provide information about your main character or raise the stakes.

Yes, they may do all of the above, but delving deeper into your supporting characters can help you create more nuanced conflict and layered characters (both main and supporting).

For instance, Drew’s father in Lambs for Dinner may be a supporting character, but his guilt and grief drove him to make decisions that damaged Drew as a person. Because of his father’s actions, Drew’s childhood made him into the person he is now.

3. In other words,

Every character is the star of their own show. And supporting characters, too, need to have intent. They need to have backstory (that is revealed organically), and they need to have a lot more facets to them that make them fully fleshed out and not just cardboard characters walking across the pages. I’ve had to cut out such 2-D characters before, because they were boring and unrelateable.

4. More supporting characters can spice up a novel.

Conflicting agendas, conflicting opinions, conflicting actions. Conflict, conflict, conflict. And really, what’s a story without conflict and complication?

A good example of this is Laini Taylor’s final instalment to the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, which comes with several interwoven story threads. Karou may be the protagonist, but a host of supporting characters like her best friend Zuzana, the prophet Eliza, the fallen angel Razgut, and the Stelians, all bring their own stories to Karou’s, thereby making her journey a more complicated and rewarding one.

5. But be careful of creating TOO MANY supporting characters.

You many risk diluting the focus of the story and risk sidetracking. The focus should remain on the protag, but let each of your supporting characters have a voice too. To make your supporting characters stand out, make sure they are not only memorable, but also relevant to the story. Consider these: why are they there? what is their relationship with your protag and what impact do they have?

There’s no fixed, “ideal” number of supporting characters. Go with what your novel requires. If you really need a motley crew of characters, then make sure they don’t just offer a wise quip or two before disappearing.

Supporting characters can be great fun to write because they offer so many potential ideas and story threads to weave into your protagonist’s. So make each character count!


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