Supporting characters are as vital as their name implies: they support your main characters and plot arcs so that everything runs smoothly (or horribly, as the case may be–disasters make good fiction). Done right, supporting characters make your protagonist look good (or bad, as the case may be) and offer a much-needed alternate perspective. This golden principle will make sure all of your supporting characters are being used effectively!
As a quick recap, I prefer to tackle character revisions in two sweeps:
- Micro: focusing on the protagonist’s specific journey and arc (as well as any secondary protagonists and the primary antagonist).
- Macro: focusing on the use and placement of supporting (secondary and tertiary) characters, and how all of the characters fit together within the story.
Last week we focused on micro character revision. This week we’ll focus on the macro character revision.
Note: primary characters are important characters who occupy major parts of your novel manuscript, but do not push the plot as much as the protagonist. While a story can technically have two protagonists, it is rare. More often you’ll have one protagonist and then one or more primary characters. Your primary characters can go through similar vetting processes as your protagonist (go here for protagonist evaluation), but your supporting characters occupy a more tenuous space.
Your novel manuscript is prime real estate. Every part of it needs to captivate your audience in order to make your story irresistible. Which means you need to make every one of your supporting characters matter to the plot and to the protagonist.
The Golden Principle of Supporting Characters: the supporting character must in some way meaningfully serve the plot and act as a foil that directly or indirectly brings out a distinct aspect of the protagonist(s). Otherwise, kick the the character out.
Yes. But revisions are where hard decisions are made. You want this story to shine. And if you find a character doesn’t make the cut, set them aside and put them into another manuscript! You can do that, because you are an awesome writer.
Here Are Some Additional Principles:
1.) Make sure each supporting character has a distinct goal that furthers the plot.
- Your supporting characters should should be doing things to accomplish goals. Otherwise, kick them out.
- The goal doesn’t have to be complicated. Even if the character is a housekeeper and their goal is trying to get the workaholic protagonist to eat, that is a sufficient purpose and will provoke the protagonist nicely.
- Beware of nice-guy or nice-girl characters that stick around because you know that in a future part of the story or in a future book they will mean something. Your supporting characters need to do or say something meaningful that pushes your protagonist or plot from their first line in the story. Otherwise, you don’t have time for them. No free rides.
2.) Make sure each character is serving the protagonist.
- Ultimately, all of the characters in your plot should serve the protagonist. The protagonist is your star. The other characters are all foils that bring out different sides in the protagonist (parental side, friend side, lover side, fighter side, antagonistic side, etc).
- If you have a show-stealing side character who is doing nothing for your protagonist, even indirectly, highly consider ditching them. You can always give the scene-stealer their own story.
3.) Make sure you get rid of, combine, or differentiate similar characters.
- Since each character is meant to fulfill a certain role as a foil for the protagonist, beware of character role duplication. It doesn’t mean your supporting characters are identical, but it does mean that two or more are fulfilling very similar functions in terms of what they do for or bring out in the protagonist.
- Having two characters with similar functions is like having two different types of blenders. You might like them both and use them for different purposes, but ultimately, you have to question if you’ll have enough counter space. In the same way, while you might deeply enjoy two supporting characters with the same functions, consider critically whether there is room in your story for them.
- Classifying your characters with personality types and archetypes is a great way to check for overlap in their story functions.
4.) Make sure each primary and secondary character has a distinct voice and one distinguishing trait.
- Make sure each supporting character sounds distinctive. Give them a vocal quirk, a favorite word, a certain turn of phrase, what-have-you. Something that makes them stand out from the other characters.
- Also, give your supporting characters one distinctive physical quality: hair color or type, eye color, a scar, a bit of technology, a favorite item of clothing, etc.
- Working in these two attributes is particularly effective for adding quick complexity to supporting characters.