Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we covered Developing Main Characters. This week, I’ll discuss Developing Supporting Characters.
The Supporting Characters’ Job
The purpose of a supporting character is to add depth to the protagonist by helping the reader understand how the main character interacts with others and reacts to situations. Also, supporting characters help move the plot forward.
What types of supporting characters do you need for your story? Well, that really depends on the goal that your main character must achieve.
The Villian/Antagonist: Every story needs one! Often, the antagonist is a person (but it can be a disaster, technology, society, or even a main character) who fuels the conflict that the main character must solve to achieve her/his goal.
The Love Interest: This character adds tension and may be directly involved in the conflict. It also can serve some of the same functions as the antagonist and the BFF.
The Mentor: This character encourages the main character to develop the skills she/he needs to achieve her/his goal.
The BFF/Sidekick: This character may be needed to help the main character achieve her/his goal or may be around to help us understand the main character and her/his motivations.
Extras: Characters who would normally inhabit the main character’s world or who are needed to complete scenes. You may need many of these or none depending on your story.
Examples of Extras:
1) A child main character would normally have parents/a guardian.
2) In a classroom setting, there would normally be a teacher.
3) In a fight scene, there would normally be many fighters.
Often, these EXTRA characters only need minimal development and a minimal/no arc. But the other characters in your story need much development!
After you’ve chosen what types of characters you need, you’ll need to interview the most important ones (the ones who must move the plot forward) using a process like the one in our previous post about Building Main Characters.
It’s often useful for your secondary characters have strengths related to your main character’s flaw.
1) Your main character may have a supportive family that they don’t appreciate. A supporting character who comes from a broken home can help the main character see the error in her/his thinking.
2) Your main character may be very popular, but has superficial friendships. A supporting character who is more introverted, but a true friend, can help the main character understand what’s missing in her/his life.
I highly recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus for fleshing out the relationships between characters. The front matter in both thesauri is extremely helpful for developing good characters that work together to make the story come alive.
Tips for creating good supporting characters:
- Give each supporting character a defining characteristic. (Appearance, skill, quirk)
- Make sure their voice is distinctive from other characters.
- Don’t give characters similar names and avoid names starting with the same letter.
- Main supporting characters should be layered and detailed, but do not take too much attention away from your main character.
- Focus your writing about supporting characters on how their actions, traits, and what role she/he plays helps or hinders the main character from achieving her/his goal.
- Limit your characters to those who are necessary to move the story forward.
- Please give careful consideration to race/skin color when you write supporting characters. Stories with white main characters and darker-skinned support characters who do all the work (or even worse who are villians/bad guys) are not representative of the real world. Please consider every reader who might read your story and avoid stereotypes. (More on this in the post on Building a Main Character.)
Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss using this character development to start working out plot!
MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.