Revealed: The Secret to Creating Unexpectedly Awesome Supporting Characters

This week’s video offers an important reminder about the single most important aspect of great supporting characters—and how you can put it to work in your own stories.

Video Transcript:

What’s the secret to great supporting characters? Is it that they’re funny? Or they’re supportive? Or they’re wise enough to help guide the protagonist in his path? Any one of those things—and many more—can contribute to a great supporting cast.

But today I’m going to posit that there’s one aspect in particular that lends itself to great supporting characters. And it’s something you already know. But it’s also something that we all have a tendency to overlook.

And it is this: the secret to memorable characters is the element of the unexpected.

Now I’m not talking about hidden identities where your character starts out as the sidekick, but then reveals later that surprise! he was actually the enemy all along. No, what I’m talking about is looking for ways to anticipate readers’ expectations—and then turning those expectations on their heads.

One great example is Rod Tidwell from Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire.

Jerry-Maguire-Cuba-Gooding-Jr

As the only one of the titular sports agent’s clients to remain loyal to him, it would have been really easy to conceive of this character as an awesome, with it, wise and centered person. But he’s not. He’s obnoxious, needy, and self-obsessed.

In short, he’s a thousand times more interesting than what any of us might have expected.

Another example I appreciate is from Danny Boyle’s sci-fi story Sunshine, in which rude co-pilot Mace is testy and borderline insubordinate.

Chris Evans Danny Boyle Mace Sunshine

As such, we might expect him to end up being the ultimate troublemaker amongst the crew, even to the point of endangering the mission.

But, nope, despite his issues, he turns out to be arguably the smartest, most dedicated crewperson—and the success of the mission ends up being mostly thanks to him.

And the other result? Both he and Rod Tidwell turn out to be some of the most interesting characters in their stories. That’s what the power of the unexpected can do for all of our supporting characters!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Who are your favorite supporting characters in your work-in-progress? And why? Tell me in the comments!

Revealed: The Secret to Creating Unexpectedly Awesome Supporting Characters

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I think my most interesting supporting character is in a finished historical novel, The Versailles Legacy. The protagonist is desperately lonely for his wife who will not join him. He gets drunk, and picks up a woman in a bar (or she picks up HIM ?). Anni turns out to be living on the street because, a Russian princess, she escaped the Russian Revolution and now lives in hiding. Later in the novel, Anni turns up as a member of a group of army officers planning to put the brakes on Hitler. Still later, the protagonist comes to believe that Anni is in cahoots with his nemesis, the British agent. Finally, too late, he is left to believe that Anni has followed him across Europe because she loves him.
    The reader never quite knows exactly where Anni stands before she dies.

  2. Natasha says:

    Great reminder! I usually search for unexpected elements in my supporting characters by asking the ‘what-if’ question; new and exciting characteristics can emerge that way. Your example of the story Sunshine reminded me of another character who proved a similar unexpected trait: Tydeus from Hercules (2014). At first, he seems like a half-human, half-animal. But then, Hercules reveals that he is his most trusted follower and he proves this in battle. Moreover, he shows capacity for being emotional (I won’t include the examples because of spoilers), as opposed to his semi-savage condition. Generally, I think that this movie (Hercules) has some interesting secondary characters, although some other aspects of the film are not as well-developped.

    Anyways, amazing post! I’ll refer to it whenever planning for next stories!

  3. I am so glad you brought this up. Working with dual timelines different problems emerge for me at different times, and as I’m coming up on revising Act 2.a of my novel I’ve found it impossible to wrap my head around what I originally found interesting about one of my supporting characters. I love his personality, I love the contrast he brings to my Romantic Interest character, but the supportive best friend gag just seems so–expected. I’ve been considering changing that relationship to being brothers to see what happens there, since they were already more like brothers than friends anyway.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always interesting to look the stereotype of a role and then the anti-type. What’s unexpected from a character of this sort? Then totally flip that on its head and see if you can come up with anything interesting.

  4. Ugh, YES! I have a supporting character I’ve been trying to build up and today I put him on the chopping block and said: “Defend yourself or we will go on without you!” His response?
    Sirius: “You can’t axe me. I’m the first one to know that the Mentor is the one who was prophesied.”
    Me: “Um. What? You’re an alcoholic and kind of a ruffian.”
    Sirius: *sigh* “I wasn’t going to tell you this, but…I was kicked out of the academy.”
    Me: “You’re kidding.”
    Sirius: “I turned to alcohol to forget. I was going to be one of the most powerful religious leaders in all of New Salem. But they kicked me out. I have a really deep theological background. That’s why the Mentor asks me who I think he is and everyone else is really confused because how the heck would I know?”

    The unexpected, unexpectedly sneaking up and braining me. Thanks, again, for asking the right questions – the ones that loosen me up and get me through the crusty times!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s awesome! “Freehand interviews,” as I call them–when we actually talk to our characters–are a superb tool for helping us get to the bottom of their motives and backstories.

  5. Isabelle says:

    My favourite supporting character in my WIP has to be Hella, she’s weird, and unpredictable. The heart of a child, the soul of a teenager, the mind of a politician, and the mouth of a sailor.

    I wish I could talk to my characters, but between the four of them, I can’t get a word in.
    Hella keeps commenting on everything I do in my life, just to be shut down or dragged into an argument with the other three.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! Yes, I tend to do more listening to *their* convos than any interjecting of my own.

  6. Oooh, nice. This is a good idea. I will think about it with the crew on my WIP. Thanks!

  7. Sometimes a secondary character can be so compelling, they take over. In my opinion, Rod was the most interesting character in Jerry Maguire. The Tom Cruise character bored me.

    I have a secondary character in my book that needs to be toned down a bit. She’s stealing too much of the spotlight!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I actually find this happens to me a *lot*. Those main characters, who have the freedom to wiggle around, often end up being my very favorites to write.

    • I think that a secondary character often has the advantage of not being the key of the story. Rod contrasts with Jerry but we do not follow him around all of the time. We just see glimpses of his life.
      I guess it is easier to give a secondary, perhaps over-the-top character pointed appearances than doing the same for a lead character.
      The banter between Gimli and Legolas in “Lord of the Rings” is fun when used to accentuate a story but they could not serve as main characters.
      Unfortunately, I still struggle with secondary characters. Okay, I also struggle with the lead characters. 🙂

      But if a secondary character steals too much of the Spotlight, could that not be used to provoke the lead characters to some actions?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yeah, honestly, I think Rod would have gotten tiresome quickly if the *whole* movie had been about him. :p

  8. Oh yes, I love supporting characters who do the unexpected! I love Styles from Teen Wolf. Dylan O’Brien is a great actor and his portrayal as the protagonist’s best friend/sidekick is the best.

    His character has so much depth, sometimes I feel like the writers love to put him under the spotlight a lot. He’s the only human in their circle, but he’s resourceful, strong, loyal, absolutely funny, and very, very clever. At first, he seemed only like the show’s comic relief, until he stepped up to be the most cunning of them all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always interesting to watch actors in supporting roles who end up being so compelling that they essentially take over the show!

  9. I’m finding my interesting supporting characters aren’t the ones I thought they’d be, and, this is probably due to that surprise factor you mention.

    My WIP is a middle-school aged contemporary fantasy, and its one of the random girls in the protagonist’s class (honestly, she was a complete cypher until I stumbled upon using her in a couple of scenes) who has proven the most engrossing to write. She’s easily the most self-assured, centred ‘old soul’ in the cast, and she was just a name on a page until I turned the spotlight to her.

    The second is one of the teachers, who, again, was just making up numbers among the faculty until the dart landed on him to be the teacher who is in on the kids’ secret mission; the one who acts as a guide and advisor to their conspiracy.

    Very surprising and hugely enjoyable!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve found that experience to be true of a lot of my stories. The best characters are often the one that just happen more than they are planned by us.

  10. Uhm… this is an intersting take. But for me, awsome supporting characters aren’t necessarily unexpected. I think an awsome supporting character is the one who brings meaning to the MC’s journey, as well as to the story itself, by bringing his own story into it.
    What I mean is that a supporting characters should have an arc that supports the main arc (makes it more obvious or understandable), and still makes sense even indipendently. Then you can perceve him not as a support to the main story, but as a ‘person’ on his/her own right.

    This is why I don’t necessarily think they have to be unexpected. Even a character with ‘expected’ characteristic can be awsome, if they bring something unique to the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Agree. But it’s always worth mining character stereotypes to see how an interesting new angle can something to the story.

  11. “Even a character with ‘expected’ characteristic can be awsome, if they bring something unique to the story.” – This fact is the main thing (as I see), we have to make sure that this character brought something new. Usually, everything is quite obvious and writer have to use such tricks to make the story more interesting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Great point. It’s all about advancing the story and bringing dimension to the conflict and theme.

  12. Nobody has mentioned DEPTH in the story. The protagonist is only as interesting as those who surround him, challenge him, support him, make him work harder, cause him to question…
    The story without depth of character is a story without depth.
    Sounds like circular reasoning, but ALL of the dimensions of characters along the way are what I think gives the story more depth and interest. IF depth is what the writer is seeking.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Amen! Theme and character development really only works when there are characters surrounding the protagonist who act in ways to reinforce the core message.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    Great advice! I love this blog so much.

  14. Interesting view. I think I’ve learned something here…

  15. I have had a lady turn up in one of my novels who simply enthralls me. She is a Christian sent to the USA during WW II by her Jewish activist new husband, who died during the war leaving her alone and childless here. This is a novel series. When the war widow first turns up, she is already in her late eighties but I am getting to know her over a couple of decades, as she lives to be over a hundred and is an impact character in more than one title and a minor character in a few more. I have had to learn so much in order to do her justice that she is rapidly becoming an impact character in my real life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Isn’t that the way it works? I think our characters inevitably end up changing us far more than we ever consciously change them.

  16. I’m a teenager who loves writing, and writing tips to help me improve, so when I found this I decided to take a look- I love the tips you’re giving, and they’re helping me get better at writing the short stories I enjoy so much.

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