How to Create Charismatic Characters — Part 5: Supporting and Minor Characters

In the first four parts of this series, we’ve explored character creation largely in the context of main characters, i.e. protagonists and antagonists. But our novels are, of course, filled with many other types characters. In this article, the final article in our series, we’ll look at the role supporting characters and minor characters play in a narrative and how you should go about creating them.

Supporting characters surround, support and/or hinder our protagonist on their quest, mission, or endeavor. These characters can be rich and well-rounded, if appropriate, but they aren’t the focus of the story. They don’t dominate the narrative the way protagonists and antagonists do. They are often “along for the ride”, a ride driven by the main character’s lust for their object of desire.

Supporting characters should exist in relation to your protagonist, so much so that Charlie Jane Anders suggests a key secret to creating unforgettable supporting characters is for writers to continually remind themselves to focus on what the supporting characters mean to the protagonist.

Supporting characters often include allies, mentors, family members, and minor antagonistic forces encountered during a story. Harry Potter’s Albus Dumbledore is a great example of a supporting character. He’s not a protagonist the way Harry is, or even Ron and Hermione might be, yet he’s none-the-less an important character who weaves his way in and out of the narrative throughout the course of Rowling’s seven book series.

As previously discussed in Part 3, well-rounded characters are largely defined by unpredictable decisions making and contrasting emotions. Supporting characters can thus be used to draw out different aspects of the protagonist’s personality.

The way Harry acts when he is with Ron is different from the way he acts when he is with Hermione, which is, of course, quite different from the way he acts when he is around Dumbledor. The way a rugged homicide detective acts while on the job at a murder scene may be very different from his behavior when he goes home to his wife and kids in the evening. Supporting characters make our protagonists more interesting and dynamic characters by drawing out their various layers of personality.

Supporting character also provide the obvious role of giving the protagonist someone to talk with. Reading Batman’s relentlessly dour inner monologue isn’t nearly as interesting as having him discuss a case or mission out loud with his young side-kick, Robin. Similarly, Sherlock Holmes mysteries wouldn’t be nearly as fun to read if his trusty side-kick Dr. Watson weren’t there to interact with Holmes.

Supporting characters can also be used to explore a novel’s theme by emphasizing its message, or by providing contrasting elements, via a sub-plot.

For example, if the theme or controlling idea of your A (main) Plot is “love concurs all,” then you may want to include a B (sub) Plot featuring one of your minor characters experiencing a story in which love does not concur all. The novel will thus benefit from a more complex and nuanced exploration of its overall theme.

Supporting characters can also be used to comedic effect in order break the tension of otherwise overly dark or intense dramatic moment. These characters, functioning as “comedic relief”, can comment on the ridiculousness of fantastical or overly dramatic situation, and can provide cathartic release from the dramatic tension.

As Joss Whedon puts it, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”

While the visual nature of slapstick comedy is less effective in written fiction, wisecracking and witty (or idiotic) asides from supporting characters work wonderfully.

In addition to protagonists and supporting character, we also have minor characters in our novels. These are the walk-ons who exist almost exclusively to push the plot forward in a logical and realistic manner. If your lead and her love interest go out on a dinner date, there needs to be a waiter to serve them their meal and probably other folks filling up the restaurant.

The thing to be careful about when writing your minor character is to ensure they don’t overshadow your main and supporting characters. You may want to create character worksheets that identify important information about your main characters (their physical appearance and background story, for example), but if you start doing worksheets for every waiter and doorman encountered in your book, you’ve probably gone too far.

In her article, “How to Write Effective Supporting Characters,” Hallie Efron cautions, “Don’t get carried away and forget that walk-ons should get no more than a sentence or two of introduction. They don’t need names, and a touch of description is plenty.”

Making a minor character too interesting or complex will draw the reader’s attention away from where you want it focused within the scene: your protagonists. If you have a waiter who is wacky, complex, or fascinating, the reader will be misled into thinking the character is important to the overall narrative.

According to the dramatic principle known as “Chekov’s Gun,” every element in a story must be necessary. As the playwright and short story writer Anton Chekov put it, writers should, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

That said, you do want to allow supporting, and even minor characters, to grow and evolve in certain situations, particularly if you’re writing an ongoing series of some kind.

The character of Angel appeared as a minor character in early episode of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He quickly evolved, however, into a full-on supporting character as the protagonist’s main love interest. Eventually, he became the dynamic lead character of his own self-titled spin-off series, Angel, where he was surrounded by supporting characters of his own.

Supporting and minor characters have important roles to play, so give them the thought they deserve and develop them with similar care as you would your protagonists. Just be careful they don’t become so interesting that they distract your readers from your protagonist’s journey.

That brings our How to Create Charismatic Characters series to a close. I hope you have enjoyed this series of articles. If you did, I would encourage you to join Writer’s Craft Academy, my private membership site featuring 20 hours of training videos for authors, weekly group coaching sessions, and much more! Click here to learn more now.

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