Writer Fuel: Supporting Characters – The Unsung Heroes of Storytelling

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

I’ve been thinking about supporting characters a lot lately. These are the unsung heroes of storytelling, and yet they are often misunderstood. We might call them “side” characters or “secondary” characters as if they play second fiddle to our main character, but the truth is they play a very specific purpose in the story.

You see, I believe that most stories have one—and only one—main character. I say most stories because there are some exceptions. For example, many romance stories involve two protagonists who make up the couple and the story is told equally from both characters’ perspectives. Regardless of whether there is one (or more than one) main character, the supporting characters still serve the same purpose: to support the journey of the protagonist(s).

One thing to keep in mind is that while supporting characters may not be the stars of your story’s show, they don’t know that. After all, no one wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Gee, I want to be a supporting character in someone else’s life today.” Every character believes they are the protagonist of their own life, which means they will behave according to their own motivations or desires. Yet, for the purpose of your specific story, the protagonist is the star and all other characters exist to support that character’s journey.

So, why do we need supporting characters, anyway? Why not just focus all of our attention on the protagonist? There are a few reasons why stories need supporting characters, but they all boil down to the way these characters support the development of the main character.

(1) They prevent the story from getting boring.

A story with no supporting characters could be extremely boring if not done well. In fact, even in a story where the character is alone for most of the time, it can help to have a supporting character. Consider the film Castaway, for example. Even though the protagonist is stranded on an island, he’s not completely alone. He has Wilson, the volleyball that he personifies and turns into a “friend.” Not only does Wilson help keep the protagonist from losing his mind, but he also serves as a supporting character of sorts and keeps the story interesting. 

(2) They have backstories and goals.

Supporting characters are characters in their own right. Fully fleshed out supporting characters bring with them a history and at least one goal, and these are different from those of the protagonist. These elements can lead to subplots that add depth and dimension to your story. When you explore where your supporting characters have come from (history) and where they want to go (goal), you can potentially uncover material for an interesting subplot. 

(3) They give us an alternate view of the protagonist.

When supporting characters interact with the protagonist, they give us a new perspective on that main character. Note that we do not necessarily need to experience the story from the supporting character’s point of view. Simply by bouncing the two characters off each other, we get a more objective view of the protagonist because we see them in relation to that supporting character. When characters interact, we see a side of the protagonist that we may not have seen otherwise.

(4) They give the protagonist the opportunity to grow.

Supporting characters bring their own set of motivations and these motivations are different from those of the protagonist. When a supporting character’s motivations are at odds with the protagonist’s, we get tension, which in turn keeps the story interesting. Supporting characters’ motivations will affect how they behave, which means that even when they are trying to help the protagonist, they might actually create conflict instead. This conflict gives the protagonist the opportunity to develop and grow as a character.

(5) They have specific roles in the story.

Different supporting characters play different roles in a story. The antagonist exists primarily to cause trouble for the protagonist, while allies are often used to raise the stakes or bring out a specific side of the protagonist’s personality. Advisor characters can sometimes provide much-needed information to the protagonist or fill in parts of the backstory. Some supporting characters don’t even need to appear on the page in order to have an impact on the story. The key to remember is that different types of supporting characters serve different functions and contribute to the story in different ways.

One question that a lot of writers wonder about is regarding the number of supporting characters. How many is too many? And when you have a large supporting cast, what should you do? The truth is, there is no hard and fast rule for how many characters you should have; it should be whatever number your story needs. The key is to consider the roles your characters play. If you have multiple characters that fill the same purpose, maybe you can fold them together into one composite character. Keep in mind that you can have one character serve multiple functions in your story, e.g. a mentor character who turns out to be the villain, or a BFF who eventually becomes the love interest.

In terms of managing a large supporting cast, there are techniques that authors use to help readers get a handle on who’s who. For example, some stories (like a family saga) might provide a family tree or other type of diagram so the reader understands who the characters are and how they are related to each other. Or in other cases, the author might list the characters along with their pictures so the reader gets a sense for who they are. An example of the latter would be Karen Hesse’s novel-in-poems Witness. The important thing is that readers understand who the characters are and how they relate to each other. After all, any moment when the reader is wondering, “who is this person?” is a moment when they get pulled out of the story. Ultimately, the goal is to keep the reader immersed in the story as much as possible.

Until next time, keep writing and keep being awesome!

P.S. For more info on Gabriela Pereira, the founder and instigator of DIY MFA, check out her profile page.

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