Writers spend a lot of time researching, planning and digging deep into their protagonists’ qualities. We know that readers need a strong main character to care about. But what about the supporting cast?
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at some ways to bring secondary characters to life in ways that complement the protagonist.
Cast of Thousands
One common mistake writers make is to create too many characters and populate the story with this “cast of thousands.” While there may indeed be examples of stories that work with large casts, most of us can’t simply make a list of characters in the preface and expect readers to remember them (or care!).
Large casts are especially problematic if too many characters are introduced at the story’s opening. Readers will be confused as to whom they should care about. Introducing a slew of characters all at once and then expecting readers to remember them is writer’s folly. Ease into introductions, making sure the reader understands why the character figures into the story.
Use as few characters as possible, even if some must be combined into composite characters. For instance, a character has two grandmothers. Unless they are opposed to the protagonist in some way, it might be easier for readers to remember Grandma rather than one or the other.
No other secondary character is more important than the sidekick. This character does more than simply support the protagonist. The sidekick can see what the protag is blind to, offer a contrast or simply represent the sane, logical approach to problems.
This sidekick (best friend or other character) helps the protagonist by being something the protagonist is not. By illustrating the “normal” way of living, the sidekick helps define the “crazy” stuff or lengths the protag is willing to go to for a goal. In a way, your sidekick serves as the voice of reason when the protagonist must go beyond reason to overcome obstacles and win the goal (or girl).
But a good sidekick is only believable if he/she is a complete person. I recommend doing a complete character arc for your supporting role as well as the lead. Beyond the outer basics of appearance, etc, delve into this character’s disappointments, loves, hates and regrets. In other words, motivation counts for these secondary characters too.
Even Minor Characters Want
But what about the other minor characters? If you’ve written a great protagonist and sidekick, you don’t want cardboard minor characters wrecking your scenes. In most stories, there are at least a few people who interact with the protagonist, including an antagonist and others.
I think the key to writing 3-D minor characters is the same as for major players: Make these bit players want something. But not just any old thing. Make sure the wants of all your minor characters figure in some way to the protagonist’s main goal.
Whether the character is opposing the protagonist or helping, give him/her something to long for. This longing will either hurt or help the protagonist, but all should give that protagonist the opportunity to learn, to change and grow. These changes by story’s end, will satisfy readers more effectively if you’ve taken the time to consider what roles your minor characters play.