Supporting Characters and Theme: 6 Important Questions to Ask About Your Story

Raise your hand if you’ve ever written in a new supporting character just because, hey, somebody had to start that tavern brawl. Creating delightfully colorful, unexpected, and sometimes just plain convenient minor characters is half the fun of writing. That said, we might all want to now sit on those hands we raised. However random our supporting cast may sometimes seem, writers mustn’t overlook the crucial correlation between supporting characters and theme.

In short, the more important your supporting characters, the greater your responsibility to ensure they contribute more than just that first punch to get the conflict going. Once you’ve properly set up the foundations of your story’s thematic presentation (via your protagonist’s arc and your antagonist’s generation of the plot conflict), your supporting characters are going to provide your greatest opportunity for deepening the complexity, maturity, and subliminal power of your story’s thematic premise.

I’m going to repeat an analogy I’ve used before because it’s one of my favorite ways to view theme:

Think of your overall theme as a big mirror smashed on the floor. The biggest chunk of glass is your protagonist. The second biggest is your antagonist. And every other shard represents every other character. They all reflect the theme. They all show a different piece of the big picture.

Naturally, the bigger the piece of glass—the bigger the character’s role—the more explicit its relationship to theme should be. But ideally even the walk-on character with no lines can present symbolic opportunities. Think about it: the character who starts that tavern brawl could be a drunken miner, a bartender, a little girl, a fancy gambler, or the landlady. Even if that’s all that character contributes to the story, each choice is going to say something a little different within the context.

If dreaming up thematic significance for each and every supporting character sounds like a lot of work, don’t worry. With a little practice, using thematic criteria to choose or groom supporting characters will become second nature. More than that, it’s a fun and effective way to create a surprising and dimensional cast.

6 Questions to Refine Your Supporting Characters and Theme

To help you get a sense of how your supporting characters can play a defining role in strengthening and deepening your story’s theme, here are six questions. Eventually, these questions should become instinctive, but until then you can use them as a reminder of ways in which you can spot and take advantage of missed opportunities.

1. How Does Each Supporting Character Represent the Theme?

Take a moment to scan your cast. If every character is pertinent to the forward progression of your story’s plot, then it’s already probable these characters have a strong thematic impact as well. Still, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. For that matter, thematically vetting supporting characters can be a great way to spot weaknesses in their relation to the plot as well.

Refer to the question inherent within your story’s thematic premise. Is each prominent character asking (or answering) some version of this question?

For example, if your story is about duty, your characters may ask any range of questions from “What is duty?” to “Do I owe duty to a tyrant?” to “Can doing your duty go against your conscience?” to “Am I hiding behind my duty?” to “Am I hiding from my duty?”

The more varied the questions, the more opportunities you will have to explore your thematic premise from every angle.

2. Which Supporting Characters Reflect Positively on the Theme and Which Reflect Negatively?

To create a well-rounded exploration of theme, you will want to look at it from as many angles as possible. Some characters should argue for the thematic Truth; others should argue just as passionately and logically against it. (If you at least occasionally find yourself almost convinced by your antagonist’s arguments, you know you’re doing a good job.)

There’s little point to having multiple characters represent the same thematic position within the story. Look for as much variety as possible. See if you can create a character who will represent at least each of the following:

  • A stalwart, unchanging relationship with the Truth.
  • A stalwart, unchanging relationship with the Lie.
  • A change arc from Lie to Truth.
  • A change arc from Truth to Lie.

3. Which Characters Will Influence Your Protagonist’s Relationship to the Theme and Which Will Be Influenced By the Protagonist?

Your protagonist’s relationship to the plot and the theme is your story. It’s the structural and symbolic backbone that proves whether the whole thing works or not. When it comes right down to it, your supporting characters only matter to the story insofar as they move the needle on the protagonist’s relation to the plot and/or the theme (preferably both, of course).

If for the moment we simplify the idea of theme to a question, then the supporting characters will reflect that theme by positing various answers. Some of those answers may help the protagonist find the ultimate thematic Truth he needs to win or transcend the plot’s physical conflict. Other answers may be convincing in their ability to tempt him away from that Truth but ultimately negative in their impact upon the ending.

It may also be that a supporting character is impacted by the protagonist as much or more than the protagonist is impacted by the supporting character. Especially when the protagonist is demonstrating a Flat Arc (in which he is largely unchanging in representing the story’s thematic Truth throughout), the supporting characters may be the ones most changed by the theme.

4. How Does Each Minor Character’s Personal Goal/Conflict Comment Upon the Theme?

Now that you’ve examined your supporting characters’ contribution to your story’s thematic big picture, it’s time to get a little grittier. It’s not enough simply to identify the personal beliefs that align a supporting character with either the Truth or the Lie. You must make sure those personal mindsets are demonstrated (aka, shown not told) on the scene level in ways that actually move the needle on the plot.

The easiest way to gauge this is to consciously choose your supporting characters’ personal goals, first within the plot as a whole, then within each scene. In the busyness of making sure your protagonist’s goal and conflict are happening in each scene, it can often be easy to overlook the causal and thematic importance of each and every supporting character’s scene goal. Paying attention to supporting characters’ scene motivations and desires will not only amp their credibility as whole human beings, it will also provide incredible opportunities for deepening the holistic complexity of your plot conflict and your thematic argument.

5. How Does Each Supporting Character’s Climactic Moment Reflect Your Protagonist’s Thematic Climax?

Your protagonist provides both the structural and thematic throughline for your story. It’s her Climatic Moment that will end the conflict and “prove” the thematic premise. Your supporting characters are there to support that outcome. They should not overshadow the importance of the protagonist in these finale moments. (If any character other than the protagonist takes center stage in the Climax, you have to ask if you’ve chosen the right protagonist.)

Some of your supporting characters may be present in the actual Climax, but many others will offer their final impact on the plot in earlier scenes. Either way, look for opportunities to end these characters’ thematic conversations in ways that snowball into the protagonist’s finale.

This might look like any of the following:

  • The supporting character actively influences the protagonist in moving toward the thematic end.
  • The supporting character is directly influenced by the protagonist’s thematic choices in the Climax.
  • The supporting character symbolically foreshadows or reflects the protagonist’s end, either supportively or ironically.

6. What if a Supporting Character Doesn’t Provide a Thematic Reflection?

Now we come to the final important question you can ask about your supporting characters. What if they don’t have any relationship with or reflection upon the theme?

First of all, don’t panic. Not every character has to comment upon the theme. That character who started our tavern brawl may not need to offer anything more than the first punch to get the scene rolling. But here are two rules of thumb for judging whether you’re missing an opportunity for thematic depth or, in some cases, risking a huge theme hole:

1. The smaller your cast, the tighter your thematic representation must be.

If your story is Death of a Salesman with only a dozen characters, then every character matters. The specificity of every character, within both the plot and the theme, must be drawn sharply. If, however, your story presents the proverbial cast of thousands, you’ll have much more room for error.

2. The more important the character, the bigger the thematic footprint must be.

Although there may be occasional characters whose impact far outweigh their actual screen time, usually their importance within the story can be judged on the size of their roles. Walk-on characters with no lines clearly land at the bottom of the pecking order, while archetypal allies and enemies command the most influence upon plot and theme. You can get away with colorless and meaningless walk-ons, but the more scenes in which certain characters appear and the more dialogue they have, the greater their thematic importance.

Basically, if a character is moving the plot, that character should be vetted for thematic integrity.

***

Although not always immediately apparent, supporting characters and theme are made to serve one another. If your supporting cast is solid, that’s a good indication you’re executing your theme solidly as well. And if your theme is progressing nicely, it’s probably a good sign you’ve created a memorable and pertinent cast of supporting characters. Using theme to vet supporting characters (and vice versa) is one of your best tools for pulling off a solid and holistic story. Try it out!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How have you consciously paired your supporting characters and theme in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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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 I have two flavours of supporting characters. Firstly there are those such as Heloise who interact directly with Jane, the protagonist. These then break down into those that support her, and whom she repays with kindness, and those who are active enemies or bystanders. Enemies die if necessary, bystanders she tries to protect. Sometimes enemies turn out to be bystanders who have got caught up on the wrong side. This is Jane talking to a couple of black-hat guards:

    ‘I haven’t got any reason to argue with you. You’re a nice couple of lads who have fallen in with Arthur, and when Space Fleet comes to get rid of him there’s no real reason for you to be hurt as well. If I give you a formal warning now, and the marines come in shooting, you could be in trouble, so I shan’t.’

    Despite the guards having guns and keeping her prisoner, she sees that they are just a couple of teenagers ho have been fooled by the antagonist. This shows both Jane’s compassion, and also how the antagonist has failed to recruit any henchmen who are either competent or believe in the cause.

    Heloise is the senior spaceship designer and among other things is used to show what life is like in the confederation. She has horses and dogs, walks for miles, cooks, and builds the fastest and most powerfully armed spaceships the galaxy has ever seen. At 59 she is still doing her own test flying, and in a sense plays Q to Jane’s Bond. Never married (there is sad backstory to explain why) she is still a maternal and matriarchal figure who adopts the junior officers as her family. She embodies the values that the confederation is all about. On the one hand she is a superb engineer, on the other the delightful, and moderately rich, grannie we all need. In the moment of crisis the two overlap, the juxtaposition of the technical problem and the domestic setting gives the effect I want. This is what happens:

    There was a stinging jolt, and for a moment Jane caught a glimpse of gold lines. The tug vibrated with a screech of tearing metal, and the tail fin of the eighty-footer moved closer to the windows.
    ‘Ian, you’re chewing up your own hull. Get your helmet on. Ian? You are in your pressure suit aren’t you? Ian!’
    ‘There wasnae time for that, lassie. She’ll hold pressure long enough.’
    ‘But she won’t go into ortho. We’re too close to the sun.’
    ‘Aye.’
    ‘I don’t see how-’
    There was a faint chime in the background. ‘Starline,’ said Ian, ‘I’ll patch it through.’
    ‘Sorry to cut in just when you young people are enjoying yourselves…’
    ‘Heloise!’ said Jane, ‘any ideas?’
    ‘…but your nice young man seems to have got his drive wedged. I was watching the telemetry.’
    ‘Aye. I can’t roll to burn reaction motors, and I can’t get into ortho, too close to the sun.’
    ‘That’s all right, love.’ There was a furious burst of barking in the background. ‘Flossie! Sit! No woof when your mum is on starline or I shall put you in the kitchen.’ The noises subsided. ‘Turn off your autopilot. Now call up the vector display, set everything to zero. Next go to the adjacency matrix display. Clear that to all zeroes. Then find the top right number and go down one row. Set that to one point zero one.’
    ‘Aye, but how in hell—Sorry, how do I steer?’
    ‘That’s all right. You don’t. Jane poppet?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘How much more weight can you take?’
    Jane struggled in her seat harness, trying to ease the pain in her shoulders. ‘About twice this.’
    ‘Lovely,’ said Heloise. ‘Ian, artificial gravity and engage.’

    Of course it works, the two spaceships come flying out of the sun’s gravity well like a champagne cork, and the antagonist dies.

  2. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    Oh wow! You gave me a lot to think about concerning the story I’m writing now. You have also given me some ideas of how to make my supporting characters (and perhaps my protagonist) more dimensional.

    In my story I have two men in love with the same woman. John fancies and desires to be married to Ms.T. While he is supportive and protective of her he admits he doesn’t understand her. John and Ms. T relationship is more friendship oriented than romantic.

    Richard and Ms. T relationship is more romantic, but both keep their distance for various reason. Even though they come from separate worlds they have things in common one being glory, which is the theme of the story.

    Presently, I’m trying to figure out if I should kill off John or Rich (or both) or Ms. T.

    Which brings me to a question: when or should you kill off a protagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the great thing about making supporting characters more dimensional is that it inevitably improves your protagonist as well.

      I have a whole post on when to kill off characters.

      Protagonists are the trickiest, since they carry the story. Generally speaking, when they die, the story ends. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s hard to maintain a solid structure once the protagonist is gone. The remaining story feels like epilogue.

  3. How have I consciously paired my supporting characters and theme in my story?

    I think I’ve got a foil in my work-in-progress, a tragic love story, who demonstrates another path the protagonist could have taken. The foil had a crush on the protagonist’s love interest, but a scandal breaks out, giving the foil the opportunity to pursue the love interest, but they decided against seizing it.

  4. I’m already diving in with this, and in many cases it only takes a few extra words to make those extras in the script add just a pinch of flavor towards the theme. I’m now telling my characters “do something!” and listening to other characters asking “what’s my motivation?” Thank you.

  5. Usvaldo de Leon says

    This is fantastic. It’s high time supporting characters pulled their own weight around here, rather than just stand around being colorful and starting tavern brawls.
    Interestingly, I have a scene in a WIP where the MC starts a tavern brawl with a reluctant supporting character, who has their reasons for trying to duck the fight.

  6. This was such an interesting post!

    My WIP’s theme is something like “question what you’re told.” My protagonist has a flawed mentor. I think he reinforces the Lie (you can’t change anything) by representing, not only embracing the antagonistic evil system, but also by thriving under it and encouraging the protagonist to do the same.

    The protagonist’s love interest challenges the Lie and is changed by the protagonist’s climactic decision.

    The protagonist’s mother has dementia and doesn’t remember him most of the time. I guess her illness, being beyond the protagonist’s control, represents the Lie? I’m not sure. That bugs me. Before the novel begins, when the protagonist was young and his mother wasn’t sick, she was emotionally unavailable. He feels obligated to care for her now because he’s still, on some level, trying to win her approval despite her mental inability to give it.

  7. David Snyder says

    Hey Katie,

    This is great. Niiiice!

    By the way, I LOVE your book Structuring Your Novel. I have read maybe fifty books on novel writing tips, and this is my go-to manual for the end run.
    I have this on my Kindle and have it propped up near the screen, as I am going through a next-to-last draft in Scrivener, using your template. It is pretty funny. I should send you a picture.

    Anyway, the book is amazing in that as I proceed through the revision from hook onwards, it helps me to see EXACTLY what I need to add, delete, expand etc. as I go through each chapter, in order. Works like a magic charm. Love it, love it, love it. It is helping me put it in the bleachers. I hate to say so myself, but I feel like I am killing it, and I am thankful for your influence.

    I will need to order a signed hard copy one day. I think this book may be one your major gifts to humanity. Deceptively simple, but pure genius, I think.

  8. I like to use a concept of correlation between main characters, while supporting/secondary and minor characters add the theme clues that lead up to the solution of my main characters’ problems.

    For example, a main character may talk to or get called by a supporting/minor character who gives the MC advice or information needed to resolve a certain situation. Then I may compare two main characters and see how their emotions and personal situations relate to each other and how they both come to different or similar conclusions. Hope I wasn’t confusing. Lol…

  9. Kaitlyn Wadsworth says

    Hi

    Your article gave me much to think about to enhance some of my non changing minor/or lesser but supporting characters in my WIP. The theme is basically that people can be both good and evil.
    Through the course of the story, characters play out in their story arcs certain variations on this. That the definition evil, even though depending on actions and words of individuals, may not always be evil when taken in context and when considering motives.
    Also that when pushed emotionally in really stressful circumstances even good people can react in a desperate/evil way
    That an antagonist who has started out life gentle and with good motives can in some circumstances turn to evil from which there is no way back ever.
    That an antagonist can look evil, act evil but he may have been influenced and enabled by another who has a back story of committing an evil, covering up an evil, and needs the antagonist to keep the secret (a sin of omission which made him responsible for numerous deaths), whereby condoning the antagonists evil deeds, and then being unable to prevent them for fear of his own evil deed being exposed. Leaving a question about who is most evil. And showing that appearing good does not in reality make one good.
    That doing good/wise things can sometimes lead to bad consequences.
    And that though lies are bad the reasons behind some of them being told may be good.

    I was worried that maybe the theme of good and bad being present in everyone wasn’t being acted out by all the characters in a consistent way. Your article showed that using even more minor characters to explore and reflect the theme is a useful aspect to include.Their expression and feelings about the basic truth may not always agree or disagree. Their voice doesn’t always have to do this. A theme being explored and looked at in various scenes may make a reader empathize with those who appear bad due to heir backgrounds and the way they are treated, support the good until they find out the truth they hide, empathize with an antagonist who has been created by external forces, empathize those who do as they are told but do things that are wrong.
    Some themes cannot be a simple truth which all can agree with.
    In the end who is bad and who is good? Both can exist side by side and motives dictate. We are all human after all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      With such an epic theme, you’ll have all kinds of room for variation in your minor characters. So many possible dichotomies you can explore!

  10. Off-topic. Why this story matters to me? For a long time I’m struggling with this question and can’t fins the answer. Can you elaborate?

  11. Andrewis(still)editing says

    “Think of your overall theme as a big mirror smashed on the floor. The biggest chunk of glass is your protagonist. The second biggest is your antagonist. And every other shard represents every other character. They all reflect the theme. They all show a different piece of the big picture.”

    This is the single greatest thing I’ve ever read about supporting characters and their relationship to the theme. Thanks so much!

  12. Lindsey Russell says

    I like characters that at first encounter appear to be nothing more than walk-ons then later they pop up again and you think ‘Oh oh didn’t see that coming’. 🙂

  13. The trouble with my supporting characters is that they keep demanding their own books later on….

  14. “simplify the idea of theme to a question, then the supporting characters will reflect that theme by positing various answers”

    This is such a helpful way to clarify a story’s theme. I’m reminded of The Dark Knight, where the theme could be simplified to the question “Are good people incorruptible, or will even the best people turn to evil when the chips are down?” And of course Batman and the Joker have very different answers.

  15. Drat, Katie! Every time I turn around you come up with/I find a blog on yet something else I have to go back and look at. I’ll never get the first draft done! — All said in fun, of course. I want my novel to be the best it can be, a break out novel at best, highly noticed at worst. Your website/blog is my go-to reference guide. <3

Trackbacks

  1. […] them I wondered if I was using them to their best advantage.  Then I saw K.M. Weiland’s post, “Supporting Characters and Theme: 6 Important Questions to Ask about Your […]

  2. […] Nathan Bransford tells us how to nail every character’s first impression, K.M. Weiland discusses 6 questions to ask about theme and your supporting characters, Lynda Barry shares a comic exercise to create your characters and build their world in less than […]

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