Writing Supporting Characters

Oprah famously said, “Everybody gets a car.” For fiction writing, we can say, “Everybody gets an arc.”

Writing Tip for Today: Writing a character arc for every character in a story helps provide a richer more complete reader experience. Here are some tips:

Everybody Wants

Give even the supporting players in your story a goal. If your characters don’t want something, they are likely to be flatter for readers. The reason? Characters who are after some goal will be much more likely to have strong emotions.

If the character elicits strong emotions in readers, the pages are turning. If not, the Main Character’s emotions (read: wants, needs) must carry all the feelings. By only giving your lead strong emotions, you force that character to walk into a lifeless town, populated by cardboard cutouts and uninteresting stereotypes.

Instead, spend some time mapping out these supporting players’ goals. Know their desperations, frustrations and resentments. Go beyond the typical character bible with listings of eye color and height. Delve into the reason these characters are interacting with the protagonist.

Look for Motivations

By being sure of your secondary characters’ goals, you can also find out what is motivating them. There is both a conscious (outward) and a subconscious (inner) reason any player not only does what he does, but why he does it. Mine each character to uncover these motivations.

Your antagonist (bad guy or opposing figure) will be much more three-dimensional when you know what motivates him/her to act in opposing ways to your protagonist. Remember, nobody is all good or all bad. Especially with antagonists, look for positive qualities in addition to what makes him/her your protagonist’s foe.

Your protagonist’s motivations drive the story but think in terms of strong as well as weak. The more readers understand about your characters, the more they can intuit what the characters are feeling. And as Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story, “If readers aren’t feeling, they aren’t reading.”

Manage Your Story

The story you imagine no doubt has all the information readers need. Yet the trick is knowing what details to include or omit about that movie playing in your mind. That’s why you must manage your readers—to help them have a least as full an experience as you have imagined.

Every sentence you write includes some but not all the details you’ve created. You must decide which of these details is important for readers to move forward in the story and to create emotions readers can ride as they go.

As manager, you communicate with readers. Your sentences say, “Hey, remember this!” or “Just gloss over that.” When you manage your supporting characters, you make sure that they’re as real as possible but not upstaging your protagonist. Balance your management by making all scenes point in some way to the Main Character’s goal.

How do you manage your supporting characters?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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