Novels are rarely, if ever, one-man shows. The protagonist always interacts with others. Sometimes it’s another protagonist and other times it’s a minor character he meets once. Who the protagonist meets and how she deals with others provides an important insight into their personality, and it’s a way for you to advance your plot. Supporting characters might play minor roles in the story itself, but they don’t need to be an afterthought. In fact, making the supporting cast come alive is one of the best things you can do to create a world within your manuscript that feels real.
Know Their Place
Supporting characters might be zany, funny, scary, insightful, or provide a clue—but they can never be window dressing. It’s not enough for the supporting cast to be there for color. They must also do something that advances the plot. This means that if you choose to introduce a supporting character, you need to know their place. What purpose are they serving? What are they bringing to the table that moves the story closer to The End?
If your answers to those questions are that the character helps “exhibit” a trait in the protagonist or is there to provide comic relief in an otherwise tough situation, that’s not good enough. They can be funny AND do something useful. They need to have an impact on the story. Examples include pointing the protagonist in a different direction, providing new information, or revealing relationship history.
Know What They Represent
Sometimes minor characters represent a theme or motif, like jealousy, anger, love, etc. Although this seems like something from Shakespeare or another type of literature you’re not writing—think again. Characters as symbols are a common function of storytelling, including genre fiction. In fact, a popular book on screenplay writing called My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, talks extensively about archetypes as supporting characters. He says that there are eight character types who offer varying viewpoints in a story. They are the protector, deflector, believer, doubter, thinker, and feeler, and they work either with or against the hero and villain. They reflect these archetypes, but they also move the story along.
As an example, consider the archetypes used in Star Wars. R2-D2 is the believer—he always is encouraging and knows they can do it. C-3PO is the doubter. He’s the worry wort who’s never sure of the outcome. Princess Leia is the thinker, considering what to do next, while Hans Solo is a feeler—all instinct, confidence, and charisma. Obi-Won is the protector, while Darth Vader is the deflector. As you can see, characters play a specific role in the story. They represent these attributes, but these attributes also dictate how they will act and react to what happens in the book. My Story Can Beat Up Your Story shows that most successful screenplays (not so different than novels) have these equal and opposite supporting characters in them.
Know Their Style
Every character deserves a backstory, a distinctive way of talking, walking, and being—their own style. Even if the person is only on the page briefly, they should be memorable. One person giving clues shouldn’t be interchangeable with anyone giving clues. Sometimes it helps to repeat a physical description. Is he the handsome man with the piercing blue eye, or the bottle blonde? Is he the one with the accent or the limp or the hairy arms? Think of a trait that’s distinctive, and don’t be afraid to remind the reader who’s who. If you create interesting, unique characters, the world of your novel will come alive.