5 Secrets of Complex Supporting Characters

5 Secrets of Complex Supporting Characters

5 Secrets of Complex Supporting Characters PinterestSupporting characters don’t get nearly enough love.

We come up with amazing protagonists who do amazing things and we labor to give them solid and complicated character arcs. But after all that work on the story’s forerunner, what happens to the supporting characters?

Too often, they’re an afterthought.

Of course, your protagonist needs a dad or a best friend or a little old neighbor lady, so you stick them into the story. You can see them already, right? But the sad part is many writers get no farther than that in planning these incredibly important characters.

Story by Robert McKee

Even the best of protagonists can’t carry your entire story. You need a cast of supporting characters who are every bit as complex, rounded, and interesting in their own right. Not only do complex supporting characters create a more interesting and realistic world for your story, they’re also crucial ingredients in rounding out your protagonist. Robert McKee says in Story:

In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature.

Does this mean you must create a complete character arc for every single minor character in your story?

Definitely not. Many of your supporting characters will have comparatively tiny roles–perhaps only appearing for a few scenes. Fleshing out a entire character arc for all of them would land somewhere between that’s crazy and that will make you crazy. Suffice it that it’s overkill.

Crazy Wall Beautiful Map String Map

All you need to create complex supporting characters–no matter how large or small their roles within the story–is to answer five important questions about each of your minor characters.

1. What Does This Supporting Character Want?

If you’re only going to ask one question, this is the one. If you’re Dr. Frankenstein, and your characters are your little monsters, then this question is the vivifying electricity that brings every single one of them to life–from your protagonist right on down to the walking-est of walk-ons.

Victor Frankenstein James McAvoy

Take a look at your cast of supporting characters. I’ll bet you a lot of juice you’re going to find one of two things:

1. They really don’t want much of anything.

2. If they do want something, then that desire is either:

a. Help protagonist get what he wants.

b. Stop protagonist from getting what he wants.

Believe me, people, we can do better than this. I asked myself these questions about my supporting characters, as a new outlining exercise, while working on the sequel to my portal fantasy Dreamlander. I was a little startled to realize the desires of most of the minor characters in the first book fit neatly into one of those two narrow categories up there.

So what did I do? I started going through my supporting cast, name by name, and coming up with a specific desire for each of them in the new book.

The result?

Every single character–the protagonist’s relationship with them–the main conflict–the entire plot–they all instantaneously bounced into a new dimension. Boosh. Mind blown.

Jeremy Renner Mind Blown

Try it. I guarantee your minor characters will go from inconsequential smiling heads to full-on plot catalysts and genuinely interesting humans.

2. What Is Your Supporting Character’s Goal?

It’s not enough for your supporting characters to sit around wanting something. They need a plan of action for how they’re going to obtain their goal.

This is where things get fun. Because, just as with your protagonist’s goal in the main conflict, your minor characters need to discover that the course of good storytelling never did run smooth. They’re going to have a really hard time getting what they want. They’re going to meet serious resistance. Conflict, baby, conflict.

Want it to get even better? The majority of that resistance should be the result of other character’s goals–particularly the protagonist’s–getting in the way of the supporting character. And vice versa.

Let’s say your protagonist is a spaceship pilot whose goal is to go off and save the galaxy. Now let’s say he has a mother who loves him and who desperately wants to keep him from harm’s way. Her goal is to stop him any way she can, even if it means lying to recruitment officers–or maybe even breaking her son’s hand in the door to “protect” him.

Talk about conflicting goals.

3. What Lie Does Your Supporting Character Believe?

Just like your protagonist, your supporting characters are going to be less-than-perfect people. Their motivations for their desires and goals will be driven by their own complicated and often detrimental perspectives on life.

The fundamental heart of every character arc–however complete or cursory–is the Lie the Character Believes. This is what creates the underlying personal motivation and justification for everything the character desires and does.

Let’s return to our overprotective mother from the previous example: her Lie might be that she failed to protect her older son, who has already died in the war, and so she must do anything short of murder to stop this second son from also dying a hero’s death.

Or it could be something much smaller and less injurious. In Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, the protagonist’s older sister and brother believe they must “do the family credit” by acting high and mighty, in order to somehow make up for the fact that their father has been in debtor’s prison for twenty years. This creates a wonderful undercurrent of conflict with the protagonist, Amy, since she both recognizes the folly of this approach and rejects it as ignoble.

BBC Little Dorrit Charles Dickens

The Lie marks the “starting place” for your supporting character. It’s the mark on the wall, showing how tall he is at the beginning of the story. At the story’s end, you’ll create another mark to contrast the first and show how far the character has advanced (or retreated) over the course of the story. Every prominent supporting character in your story should be different in some way at the end from who he is at the beginning.

4. What Flaw Results From Your Supporting Character’s Lie?

Anatomy of Story John TrubyOut of belief comes action. (On some levels, that’s the theory of the novel unto itself.) It’s not enough for your supporting characters to simply have a false belief. They must then translate that belief into flawed behavioral patterns. The great script doctor John Truby delineates two possible categories of flaws:

1. Psychological Flaws

These are interior weaknesses that harm only the character himself.

For Example: Po, in Kung-Fu Panda, believes he has no worth because he is a fat, smelly slob of a Panda, with no innate skills. It “hurts” every day just being himself.

Po Kung Fu Panda Eating Noodles

2. Moral Flaws

These are exterior weaknesses that harm others.

For Example: Tai-Lung, the antagonist in Kung-Fu Panda, believes he is the only one worthy to be the Dragon Warrior, and he lays waste to the Valley of Peace and nearly kills his own master to prove it.

Tai-lung-rampages-through-valley

Note: moral flaws are inevitably extensions of psychological flaws. (Arguably, Po’s self-revulsion harms others, since it keeps him from realizing his true power to protect the Valley. And more obviously, Tai-Lung’s destruction of others is certainly harmful to not just his own desires but also, inescapably, his psychological well-being.)

Your supporting character’s flaw will be tied up in his desires and goals, but it can also be a standalone characteristic of its own. Although not as essential as the desire/goal, the flaw can exist without them. It can be used to bring instant depth to a supporting character, with no further exploration required.

After all, which is more interesting: a smiling neighbor lady who compliments your new shoes, or a grumpy neighbor lady who sprays you with the hose every time you pass on the sidewalk?

5. What Truth Will Your Supporting Character Discover?

When I say “well-rounded” supporting character, what image springs to mind? A circle, maybe? Makes sense, because well-rounded characters must always come full circle. Remember how your character’s Lie created a “mark” on the wall at the beginning of the story, showing where he started out? That was the setup.

Come the end of this character’s participation in the story, you’re going to need to pay off that setup. You do that by providing the supporting character a Moment of Truth. He will come to a deep and self-shaking realization about himself, his Lie, his goal, and his flaw. He will react to this realization in one of two ways.

Either he will:

1. Embrace the Truth and reject the Lie–ending on a positive note.

2. Reject the Truth and cling tighter to the Lie–ending on a negative note.

Because your supporting characters’ Lies/Truths will be much smaller and less complicated facets of your protagonist’s Lie/Truth, their journeys will be correspondingly much more simplistic. You don’t have to plot every single beat of the supporting character’s evolution. The less prominent the character is, the simpler the comparison of his before and after states can be.

For the vast majority of supporting characters, you can get away with hitting just two major beats: the setup, in which you introduce his Lie/flaw/want/goal, and the payoff, in which you at least hint as his Moment of Truth.

See how this works? The desire/goal/flaw will bring characterizing dimension to even the most cursory of roles, while the setup and payoff of Lie/Truth will sketch at least the essence of an additional arc that supports your protagonist’s main journey. It’s easy, it’s fun, and its effect on the complexity of your story is absolutely transformative. Give it a try!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are some interesting and conflict-causing goals you can give your supporting characters right now? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I never thought of that. I wonder what Lie and Truth I could give Vance.

  2. Max Woldhek says:

    As I mentioned previously, I wrote my first book before reading more than the most rudimentary writing advice, so now that I’m reading more advice (your books included) and figuring out the look of the next edit, I find myself in the position of “drat, I’m not such which characters are the supporting ones, and which are the protagonists.”

    Comes with being a massive Robert Jordan fan, I suppose. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah, yes, I can see how Jordan might be a bad influence in that area. 😉

      • Max Woldhek says:

        And then there’s George RR Martin, Ed Greenwood, Brandon Sanderson…Oh dear.
        Most of my favorite authors belong to the “cast list bigger than a Marine Battalion” category.

  3. Ive been looking at history of common problems of those in the supporting characters country when they were growing up and then deciding which of those “lies” will fit in my story best.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s totally smart! Backstories are usually rich with possibilities for deepening characters and their motivations.

  4. I love it! In real life, everyone has their own agenda, and it’s helpful to be reminded that the same should be true in fiction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It makes the planning more complicated, but the more complex weave within the story at the end, is totally worth the extra effort upfront.

      • What I like most is that following this advice will add so much depth to a story, the kind of complexity that rewards repeat readings. I can see this advice producing the kind of story that seem simple and elegant on first reading, but has a lot hidden below the surface.

        A story can be enjoyable even if some of the supporting characters are really just cardboard… but how much more thrilling when they come to life!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, repeat readings! If a writer is writing toward that end, all kinds of good things happen.

  5. Kate Flournoy says:

    I should really just stop commenting on your posts, because every time I do I sound like a broken record. 😛
    I don’t have anything new to say for this one either. Fantastic. Brilliant. I couldn’t agree more.

    I have this theory— or no, it’s more like an observation. The protagonist is the medium through which the theme of a story is shown, and therefore he’s not always going to be the most likeable guy in there. We know him so well it’s impossible to just go nuts over how amazing he is, or how funny, or how inspiring. Cuz we see ALL of him, not just the best parts.
    But we don’t have that link with the supporting characters. We get them mostly in their outward archetype, and it’s much easier to fall head over heels in love with an archetype than it is an entire complex personality. I think that’s why supporting characters (done well) are more often the ‘favorites’— the ones we go nuts over and just love to pieces.
    And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The protagonist teaches while the supporting characters engage.
    Anyway. That’s my observation. 😉

    Did you ever check out Gillian Bronte Adams’s stuff? She does an AWESOME job with supporting characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      TOTALLY agree with this. This is the reason minor characters so often “steal the show.” It’s because they *aren’t* as complex or conflicted as the protagonists. One of the reasons protagonists are more difficult is the fact that readers see deep down to the darkest corners of their souls–and it takes a skillful author to keep that relatable and sympathetic sometimes.

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        *wry smirk* Amen! 😛

      • This is a great point, and I would really argue that it’s good to have some “flat” characters who are hilarious in their consistent silliness (like Mrs. Bennett) or enjoyably snarky (like Severus Snape), when the one or two dimensions the character has are so much fun.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Hmm, I’d have to argue back that the good qualities of “flat” characters only get enhanced the more layers we add.

          • I do see your point! I think what I was really thinking of is that characters presented from some distance have a certain appeal (whether mysterious or just a mythic or archetypal quality) that a POV character usually doesn’t have.

            And a good character at a distance may be presented in silhouette so that the outline shows more clearly, but the character is not actually flat if you get closer (and certainly isn’t flat to the author). And I think that may be the lesson here — that however you are going to present the character, he should start by having life and dimension in your own mind. Very helpful, Katie.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Ah, yes, totally agree with this. Actually, this is yet another specific reason why I advocate for fewer POVs. Some characters just lose something when given a POV.

        • Mr. Humphreys, are you free?

    • Kate! You go girl. You totally just pulled a ninja-move here. Great insight.

  6. All my supporting characters become aprotagonist in their own book, so they all have clear goals of what they want and what they believe will happen, which is their lies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s helpful to often think of the protagonist in light of their “own story” even when you’re not intending to give them one. Good insight!

  7. This is a perfect follow-up to your recent article on “How to Plot a Book’.

    In that one, by starting with the antagonist, all the characters I had out on card stock (hoping they’d provide inspiration to jump start the story just by seeing them) suddenly they all started falling into place, there was structure, relationships. I’d gone from struggling to get my protag out the door to world building, exploring the potentials of ‘court intrigue’.

    But where was the dynamic in those relationships? They had to be real not cardboard cutouts positioned to populate a scene… Do they actually add flavor or merely act as a decorative garnish?

    Though I’d asked the first question regarding the characters, ‘what do they want’ you not only filled it out but added a good deal more.

    So, thank you. This helps. A lot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The two subjects – antagonists and minor characters – really do overlap a lot, simply because the vast majority of minor characters will/should end up being antagonists/obstacles in some way. Glad the post was useful!

    • Greg and other participant comments just made me realize I do my reasearch based on your character development tool. Because all my research for that character is based on their Date of birth one of the first thing your tool starts with. I look back in history of the characters country and time trying to step into that and look at common problems of age, gender and nationality of people the same age all based on that DOB.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yes! I totally do that too. I like mining the historical events in the characters’ lives for possible problems in their backstories.

  8. Wow! I am going to look at my cast of supporting characters in a whole new way! I think that with knowing what a supporting character wants, and the flaws and goals they have, even if all these things don’t make it into the book, it helps you as an author understand the story you are trying to tell too! And it makes for really deep, natural feeling, rich characters. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I do a lot of prep work for most of my books. Even the info that doesn’t make it into the story ends up being important just because it gives me such a rich understanding of what I’m writing.

  9. I have an elderly lady in my WIP who my main characters come in contact with. She finds out that her grandson has gone off and betrayed them, and she refuses to condemn him, while still helping the MCs to escape.
    There’s the grandson, who is afraid for himself and his family, and that’s why he betrays the MCs.

    Would you say those are supporting characters? They’re only there for two or three scenes each.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, definitely supporting characters. There are varying levels of supporting characters, everything from prominent minor characters who are with the MC every step of the way–to walk-ons with no more than a line or two.

  10. Alexandria Ducksworth says:

    Your tips help me greatly with my supporting characters’ developments! Thank you!

  11. Very nice. It’s hard to imagine you’ve outdone yourself, again. Hats off and many bows to you. I am humbled to be under your wise tutelage, Jedi Weiland. I’ve been missing these posts of late somehow and need to go back and do some gleaning of the fields here.

    I really like how you’re spreading the love to the supporting cast. The solo heroine types are really getting boring these days in my opinion. The stories are great and all, but they’ve been done so many times it’s almost sickening.

    Giving the supporting cast motivations, goals adds some nice dimension, and conflict baby, conflict. YEAH! I’m lovin’ it. That will definitely spice things up a bit. I think you hit a gusher with this one. I have several characters in supportive roles who could definitely benefit from this complexity.

    Thanks again for your awesomeness.

    Over and out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Don’t get me wrong: I love loner heroes. But it’s true that the deeper the supporting cast, the deeper the story as a whole. This is another subject I’ve really been exploring in my latest outline.

  12. I spent a lot of time with the backstories of supporting characters, what they wanted, and, largely, how they responded to the “big lie” being sold by the antagonist as they related, positively or negatively, to the protag. Sadly, some didn’t have much time to change as facing the antag’s snake oil ended them. I’ll think more about their inner conflict in the future, but I found that the lie they held to was that their own “way” could keep them safe. I didn’t.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always great when all the supporting characters can hold similar Lies than enhance the overall theme, as presented by the protagonist’s Lie/Truth.

  13. And when your protagonist is in a team? The members will have the same goal: how can I go deeper for every of them? Different motivation for the same goal?
    I have a lot of problems in developing characters in this situation because it seem they are in the story just because I decided it and not because they wanted it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Everybody’s got their own motivation. If all your characters have the *same* motivation as well as the same goal, then you have to question if they’re all really necessary to the story.

  14. I loved this even more the second time around!
    Read, digested, assimilated and took some notes in the process. Very cool and enlightening stuff. This help me in many ways conceptually. I’ve crafted one of my minor characters Lie/Flaw/Goal. His lie stems from his belief in the protagonist to change. His flaw is his built up idealistic views. His goal is to see the protagonist take the reins and become the next ruler.

    So their moment of truth is at the end of the story and the protagonist’s is at the midpoint? Where he has a realization mirror moment understanding how to deal with the antagonist moving forward. I think you said this also propels him foward to the third plot point.

    Super thanks with chocolate on top. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The minor characters’ Moment of Truth can happen just about anywhere within the story. It isn’t crucial that they happen at any exact spot in the timing (although it’s almost always best if it happens in the second half). It really depends on how big the arc is–and where its resolution is needed to impact the protagonist’s.

  15. I had never taken into account aboute my supporting chaacters..thnks for this worthy piece

Trackbacks

  1. […] Characters are a combination of big and small elements. Kate Foster explains how to make your character shine from page one, the Magic Violinist shares 6 characters your protagonist needs to have around, and K.M. Weiland has the 5 secrets of complex supporting characters. […]

  2. […] was to be a love triangle – Dr Arjun Gokhale and Dheeraj. But I had not thought of developing supporting characters – the crazy friend, the kid from the neighbor, the chacha-chachis, nana-nanis… It sure felt […]

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