Hermione Granger, Chewbacca, Samwise Gamgee. This month we explored heroes, villains, and anti-heroes. Now it’s time to give the lesser-knowns their due diligence. These characters are not the headliners of their respective story-homes, but they do serve an important function. Supporting cast members hinder or help the protagonist, but they should never outshine their stars.
As a writer, how do you navigate the delicate balance of making them part of the background yet still interesting? Here are 5 tips to help you write a memorable supporting cast:
1. Breathe life into them.
Supporting characters are just props, but the reader doesn’t entirely know that. The reader wants to pass them by and think oh, that person’s interesting and carry on. Think about how you move through a busy public space. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a person will stand apart from the crowd. You might wonder, why do they have crazy hair? or I wonder how they got that cool scar? Unless you’re a socio-path you don’t follow them home and ask them about their life story.
Do the same for your supporting cast members. Give them something memorable, but don’t dwell on it. Distinguishing features to consider: a quirk, a distinctive name, and definitely give them an interesting voice. This last part is key. This side character should sound different from your protagonist and your antagonist. Try not to make carbon copies of all your characters, change their tone, the pacing of their speech, or their body movements.
2. Give your supporting cast member an arc and a backstory.
These characters live in a world you’ve created and they should have a full life with trials and tribulations. However, the reader doesn’t need an info-dump on your minor characters. Put this information in your character bible and leave it there. It’s totally cool to give these little guys arcs, as well. However, unlike your main characters, we don’t need to know the nitty-gritty details of how that arc unfolds. You can mention the changes, disasters, triumphs in passing as your side characters come in and out of the main story. Think of Hermione Granger, we don’t know much about her life outside Hogwarts. Just pieces here and there.
3. Always remember their function.
Your supporting cast members have a keyword in their title–support. They should not take up a lot of page space. It seems like this is an obvious thing to state, yet it’s easy to forget once you start crafting an interesting character. When you’re writing, think of these characters as vehicles. They get your main characters to different places, or they prevent travel. We don’t wax poetic about our cars or planes, so don’t go overboard with a minor character.
Write a note in your bible about their goal/purpose. Goals can vary. The following examples will start you thinking. Supporting characters can further the plot as they …
- Reveal something essential about the main characters through showing and not telling.
- Provide objects or information so that the main characters can achieve their own goals.
- Create necessary conflict.
- Bring attention or help highlight the theme of the story. (For example, if a story’s theme is ‘fighting for acceptance,’ a supporting character could embody the differences being sublimated.)
4. Tie them to a location.
Doing this will help anchor their existence in the mind of the reader. Perhaps they work at a particular place or hang out at a specific location. This location should be a place the main characters will visit more than just a few times.
For example, Chewbacca, when you see him in your mind, where do you see him? Hopefully, your answer is–the co-pilot seat of the Millenium Falcon. Why? Because that’s his main function, to help further the plot alongside Han Solo, as his side-kick. Yes, the big furry guy goes to other places. Yes, he has a home and a forgettable Christmas special. But for the most part, we know him as one of the best pilots in the Star Wars universe.
This location doesn’t have to own the character, either. Samwise Gamgee is tied to the Shire because that location is particularly grounding for Mr. Frodo. It represents who Frodo once was and where he will return.
5. Limit their numbers.
Just like the Sand People on Tatooine, your supporting characters should ride single-file to hide their numbers. In other words, don’t go crazy making a whole bunch of characters. You will confuse and frustrate your readers. Less is best.
Whenever you can, see if you can combine more than one side character. If you’ve made notes about their goals in your bible, and two characters have the same goal (for example, to provide the main character with the key to open the secret files. …), see if you can turn them into one character. You know, to hide their numbers. It’s a classic Tusken Raider military tactic.
That being said, you don’t have to flesh out each and every person your main characters pass by. If your main character is grabbing a coffee on their way to work, Lisa the Barista doesn’t need a name and a backstory. The sassy barista handed me my coffee works just fine, too.