3 Ways to Write Stupendous Supporting Characters

3 Ways to Write Stupendous Supporting Characters

You have friends, and so should your characters.

Main characters shouldn’t hold the entire story. They need help, and that help comes in the form of supporting characters. These are the people your main characters meet who leave an impression. I’m not talking about that shopkeeper your protagonist spoke with briefly who was nothing but filler material to end the scene.

Readers should remember supporting characters. Give readers someone to love, hate, laugh at, cry with, etc. Oftentimes these characters will have important connections to your main characters: friends, family, mentors, bosses, girlfriends, roommates, classmates . . . you name it.

Simply put, supporting characters should influence your main characters—and the story—in a significant way.

So the question remains: “How do you create supporting characters that fit your story’s plot and help your main characters?”

Let me answer that. Here are three ways to develop supporting characters.

1. Give Supporting Characters Independent Goals

The story follows the main character, yes, but that doesn’t mean the whole world revolves around that character. Things happen. Supporting characters are likely to be involved in behind-the-scenes activities that influence society or the MC’s personal world.

Give supporting characters a life. What are they trying to accomplish? What obstacles are in their way? How do they interact with other characters, especially the main character?

Then dig deeper. What scares your supporting characters? What makes them happy? Do they try to avoid work? Do they jump at the chance to go on adventures? Do they party, or do they stay inside on Friday nights?

All these questions sound like things you would ask about your main character—and it’s true, you would. The first key to creating believable supporting characters is treating them as if they are the main character . . . but tone it down. You don’t have to show us every minute of their lives, just the parts that show us their personalities, affect the story, and influence the main character.

2. Focus on Speech Patterns of Your Supporting Characters

What do your supporting characters say? Are they so hyper that words spill out of their mouth so fast you could clock it on radar? Or are they reserved, and speak only when spoken to?

I always say dialogue is the most effective form of characterization. You can use quirks, stutters, slurs, screams, whispers, catch phrases, dark words, and light words. You can express intentions. Hide secrets. Blow secrets. Emotions flow through dialogue too.

Dialogue reveals so much about characters. A good way to create unique speech patterns is to let each of your characters say certain words a lot, or act a certain way while talking. Then your readers can identify who is speaking at any given moment, thus eliminating confusion.

3. Let Your Supporting Characters Represent Some Aspect of the Story

Supporting characters allow you to mix multiple themes and lessons into your story. One character can represent strength and another compassion. Perhaps one redeems himself after failing to assist the main character in an earlier predicament.

Use characters to their full potential. Don’t just put them in the story so your main character has someone to talk to. As I stated in the first point, give them a goal. In a similar way, when working on a theme, you can send these characters on their own journeys.

Readers will watch their strengths and weaknesses and see the choices they make. This will add layers to the story as readers become more invested in the lives of the people surrounding the main character.

Tell me your opinion: What do you think makes for good supporting characters?

3 Ways to Write Stupendous Supporting Characters

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About S. Alex Martin

Alex is a senior at Duquesne University studying Math, Physics, and English. He has written four novels over the past nine years and self-published three of them. Alex also runs the Get it Write Tonight blog, and is a co-admin of the YA Writers Alumni blog. Find Alex on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Alex!

  2. steve mathisen says

    Excellent ideas and article, Alex. Thanks for sharing!

  3. This is all really good. Even though we often want to see more of the minor characters in stories, I think seeing them less makes them more interesting. There are lots of fascinating side characters in Harry Potter, but the series wouldn’t work if it focused on anyone else. Same thing goes for the show Once Upon a Time where there are dozens upon dozens of fairy tale characters.

    • S. Alex Martin says

      Right, it’s important that authors make sure the MC takes up most of the story instead of trying to balance all the characters. Focus on one and show the lives of the others when needed for characterization or subplots. Less is more when it comes to the supporting cast.

  4. My all time favorite secondary character was Victoria in Robin Benway’s Audrey, Wait, also one of my all time favorite books. Yes, secondary characters are so important to the success of a story. Thanks for a terrific post.

  5. Thanks for the helpful advice, Alex.
    You say: “You can use quirks, stutters, slurs, screams, whispers, catch phrases, dark words, and light words”. But how does one express all the dynamic variety and tension that exists in real life dialogue – in prose?

    • S. Alex Martin says

      Viktor,

      You bring up a good point — and one that is resolved by expanding the definition of dialogue.

      Dialogue is speech, yes, but it also consists of movement. Actions such as grimaces, crossings of arms, perked eyebrows, emphasizing key words (through italics), and staring into space are all large parts of dialogue. The trick is to know when to add these elements so that they affect the lines of spoken dialogue in the way you want them to.

      Take, for example, the beginning of Chapter 3 in my novel, “Embassy.” My main character is anxiously waiting to leave his dorm and explore the city, and when someone knocks at the door, he jumps up and is excited — until it turns out the person knocking is the girl across the hall who he doesn’t like. During this entire scene, my MC uses short (if not one-word) phrases to express his disinterest. He gets distracted easily while she’s talking to him, tosses books onto his bed, and doesn’t care that several pages get bent in the process. When the person he was waiting for arrives, my MC kinda cuts the other girl off, shuts his door, and leaves.

      You see how action is just as important to dialogue as the actual spoken words? The trick is learning where to stick it so it reflects the tone of the scene or mood of the character(s).

      I hope that helps!

  6. I think, personally, that it’s important for the supporting characters to be as real in the author’s mind as the main. Too many times I have read books where it was so obvious that the author was deeply invested in their main character(s), but that the supporting characters were just part of the scenery. So one of the things I’ve tried to do, as I work on my novel, is to develop the supporting characters until they are as real to me as the main one. So that by the time I write them, they have families and histories and thoughts and opinions and personalities of their own, and aren’t just there to showcase how truly-amazeballs the main character is.

    (I think it may have helped me a little bit that my main character is almost defined by being not-amazeballs.)

    • S. Alex Martin says

      JB,

      I agree! Secondary characters are as much of the story-world as the main character and so should have lives beyond what we see. It’s important that authors throw in hints, such as showing how certain events influence secondary characters, so that readers get the sense that they are three-dimensional.

      I’m in a similar situation (I think?) My MC isn’t like “the chosen one” or anything. He’s just a guy in a spectacular place, so I rely on the world and supporting characters to help drive the story. I’ve tried to give each character a role (as I stated in Tip #3) that represents some aspect of the story. Readers should be able to choose who they like the best. If the author shoves the MC down your throat, and you don’t really like the MC…well, you want something to connect to or you won’t finish reading.

      That goes to show that developing supporting characters not only helps shape your story, but helps keeps a reader’s interest in the story as a whole!

  7. I love writing secondary characters! One of my favorites had almost no dialogue (he was part of an undercover mission and just had two scenes) but he was a military veteran, had PTSD, and was a recovering alcoholic. His goal was not only to carry out his mission, but to get through the day without drinking and keep himself fit for the next challenge. He only had one line of dialogue with the MC, but I wanted him to be a real person for that, to give more gravity to the scene. And it gave me a chance to flesh out the other MC, showing that he was the type of character who could have faith in a battered alcoholic and help him be useful again.

    • S. Alex Martin says

      Kathryn,

      Great! Exposing inner conflicts and flaws is an excellent way to develop characters. It draws readers in because we want to see how they cope with these flaws, and if they overcome them.

  8. Good post. Very true! 🙂

  9. This is a really good post, and it’s nice to know I’m doing all this with my supporting character! With my story at least, my supporting character, who is the best friend of the main-character, sets everything in motion and eventually helps the main character solve her problem.
    I think one of the most important things to remember is to give them a personality of their own while knowing how your main character reacts to them.

    • S. Alex Martin says

      Yep! The same goes for other supporting characters, too. Know how your main character will react to people who have some large part in their life, and you’re off to a good start!

  10. This was perfectly timed.

    I need to work on some of my other characters. I took notes while reading this, and feel fully armed with a direction to move in, so thanks KM. This will be really helpful in discovering more about my characters.

    Much appreciated!

  11. This was perfectly timed.

    I need to work on some of my other characters. I took notes while reading this, and feel fully armed with a direction to move in, so thanks KM. This will be really helpful in discovering more about my characters.

    Much appreciated!

  12. I’m writing and drawing an action-packed cartoon story, that’s called Hundred Rings (name comes from it happening in a giantic town that’s divided into ‘rings’).
    The main character is Carolina, after a past incident gained epithet “Liberty”. She’s a cold, violent young swordswoman with slight mental problems and dark past. He seeks for the ring 100 and town’s edge.
    While on ring 19, she encounters Nick Mantley. He is a great man: He understands Carolina, contains all her mockery and quirks, and eventually becomes her only friend. Nick has his own goals, but now he is maybe the most likable character of the whole story.

    Sorry for the lengthy post, I hope I didn’t upset. Its my first story I actually feel possible to complete amd have worked this hard for. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Your story sounds great – very detailed with strong and realistic characters.

  13. Excellent post! I just left an unhappy review on Goodreads the other day because the supporting characters were practically just puppets existing for the sole purpose of…well…having supporting characters!!!!! 😀 Came here via The Write Divas, btw.

    To answer your question…I think it’s helpful when a writer does an entire character sketch for supporting characters…maybe not every single one, but definitely the major ones. Even if all those details aren’t used, they’re at the ready, fleshing out this real “person” who lives and breathes in your writing, and are at the ready should they be needed.

    Again, wonderful post, thank you!!!!!

  14. I wanted this book so bad! But I kept putting my email address in and clicked on .mobi,and it kept telling me there was some kind of error. So you probably have my email to send the newsletter like a million times. If you have any suggestions, I would really appreciate them. Thank you so much for sharing the knowledge!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Just got an email from a Vicki, responding to the confirmation of the mailing list subscription, so I’m assuming that’s you. Was that before or after you tried downloading the book? If you’re still having issues, let me know via email (you can respond to the confirmation again or email here here, and I’ll send you the e-book file via email.

  15. What is your opinion about making supporting characters have a POV, so that you’re truly in their head? I’m riding the fence on just two main characters or the two mc’s and a few other supporting character? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  16. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    My rule of thumb is always the fewer POVs the better. If you don’t *need* the minor characters’ POVs to tell the story, I would absolutely consider leaving them out. But, that said, if you do need them, there’s nothing wrong with including them.

  17. Personally, I would say avoid that and just stick with your main character unless you can satisfy the following two conditions at the same time:

    #1: the POV of the secondary character is absolutely integral to the plot and will fill us in on details we otherwise would never receive, and they must be details with which the story could not move forward if they weren’t included at all.

    #2: the POV of the secondary character is COMPLETELY UNIQUE. It doesn’t sound hard to write in a different voice, but trust me, it is. We must be able to know which character we are seeing the story through WITHOUT referencing the text. A very bad example of this is “Allegiant,” by Veronica Roth. It’s the 3rd book in the series and she decided to write in two POV’s…except they were completely identical sounding and destroyed the characterization of the male lead character.

    So I wouldn’t jump into writing multiple viewpoints unless you have mastered the two criteria above. Play it safe. The last thing readers want is two character POVs that do nothing for the story as a whole when one POV would have sufficed.

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