Well-written supporting characters make a novel feel like real life. In life, we have that crazy friend, or we see strange and interesting passersby. Nobody is exactly the same. Everyone has a story. Even if we only interact with someone for a short time, that person is unique. Supporting characters should function similarly in a novel. However, unlike real life, in a novel, any character you introduce should play a distinct role.
Here are my best tips for writing supporting characters.
Avoid “Color” Characters
This is my first tip because it is something I’ve been guilty of in the past. I’ve definitely written in characters that were window dressing. They were there to advance the “mood” of the story or show the “character” of a place. They were color characters—characters whose only purpose was to be zany, fun, or interesting. They didn’t advance the story. They didn’t serve a purpose. They weighed the manuscript down.
Supporting characters must play an actual role in advancing the plot. By all means, these can be colorful characters. Your supporting characters are welcome to be zany, fun, and interesting. But they need to do something useful. Are they a side kick? Do they provide helpful information? Maybe they give the main character a clue. All fine. But they need a distinctive, indispensable part in the story—otherwise, they should get cut.
Fun Not Flat
Supporting characters should be distinctive. Just as main characters need their own attitude, backstory, and present story, supporting characters need these too. You want these people to come to life. You want them to seem like people. Put effort into creating a backstory for each of them that will inform the way they interact with your main character. One word of caution though: don’t give too much. After all, these are supporting, not main, characters.
Remember Who the Star Is
Yes, your supporting characters should be quirky or dark or damaged or whatever the story calls for. But remember who the star is. The supporting characters shouldn’t steal the thunder from the protagonist. If they’re more interesting than the star, you should rethink the star. Remember, the main character is the one going on the journey and taking the reader with her. If she’s Dullsville, the reader won’t care what happens to her. If you come up with a supporting character that’s more compelling than the main, ask why that is and how you can imbue the protagonist with some of those traits.
Balance Character Traits
Each character in your novel should be distinctive but not in the same way. The supporting cast should balance the personalities of the protagonists. Crazy characters shine around a straight man. A cautious person might be prompted to action by an impetuous one. A comedian needs someone to listen to a joke. When crafting the supporting cast, keep your protagonist in mind, and make sure these people help him shine.
Supporting characters require almost as much thought as main characters. They should feel as distinctive as the people around us in real life. But they need to know their place and have one too.