While every good story needs memorable main characters, they are nothing without a supporting ensemble of secondary characters. That’s because it’s not just your main characters that carry the story – other characters play an important role in conveying the story, too.
While secondary characters don’t drive the story in the same way that the antagonist does, they move it forward in their own ways; they shoulder the responsibility for different points of the story and they strengthen it when involved with subplots. They often have strong connections to the main character – they might be family members, friends or colleagues, or even enemies. They also have strong connections with the story arc and subplots.
Any supporting cast of characters has their own little part to play in the story. In other words, they have a reason to be there. Why are they there? What will they do for the story? What is their motivation? What conflict will they cause? How will they move the story forward? How will the directly affect the main character?
Once you’ve answered those questions and you find that there is no real reason for that character to be in the story, you should cut them.
So how do you create the right supporting characters?
Writers tend to go awry because they don’t spend enough time developing the right secondary characters. There’s a lot to be said about planning in advance before writing a novel, and characters are no different. Plan your characters before you write. Get the right names for them, give them backgrounds and history and make them believable people.
Conversely, writers sometimes spend too much time creating insignificant characters that bring nothing to the story and just make it worse. By all means plan them, but not too much that it takes up too much time and effort.
The other common problem is that writers – especially beginners – often create too many characters in the belief that the story needs them. It doesn’t.
Create too many characters and the reader won’t know whether they’re coming or going with who’s doing what, where and with whom. It will be too confusing for them and they just won’t read the story. Too few characters and the story might become too weak; it would be hard to move it forward.
The key here is balance. In order for the reader to keep up with the people that populate your story, it’s advisable to have no more than a handful of characters that they can follow easily.
So, with a modest sized cast of characters, you need to give them a reason to be part of the story. That means they have to have motivation, just like your main characters. Add a little background information. What is that character’s relationship with the main character? Is there a friendship or something deeper? Is there some conflict – friendly or otherwise?
Do they represent something within the story, such as a moral, a warning, a foreshadowing or something symbolic? Many writers use secondary characters as metaphors – some represent evil or hope, for instance. In other words, secondary characters have relevance to the story and the protagonist.
As with both protagonist and antagonist, any secondary character should be just as flawed and three dimensional, so make sure they have their own personalities and quirks – this provides familiarity and immediacy, which the readers love. It makes the characters ordinary, just like your readers. Just because they are secondary doesn’t mean they have to be made of cardboard.
Give them strengths as well as weaknesses, just like real people.
Your supporting cast will provide for and represent different aspects of the story. They should help the story move forward. They should assist your main character in his or her quest, but never overshadow them.
To create a supporting cast of characters:
- Plan your characters before you write.
- There should be the right amount of characters – not too many or too few.
- They should have a little backstory.
- They must be relevant to the story.
- There should be connection to the main character and the story or subplot.
- They must have a reason to be there; they have motives.
- They should represent something within the story.
- They should be three dimensional, with flaws, strengths and weaknesses.
- They should provide opportunity for conflict.
Things to Avoid
There are all sorts of problems that writers create when they gather their supporting cast together and one major problem is when secondary characters overshadow the main character. This occurs because the writer focuses too much scene time on a support character instead of the main character.
Similarly, writers often inadvertently switch importance of characters halfway through writing, which means the protagonist and secondary characters swap places and that just confuses the story for writer and reader.
Another common problem that writers fall back on is when they invent a secondary character as a prop to plug a huge plot hole or they bring in a character for the sake of drama or tension. It doesn’t work, it’s contrived, and the reader won’t thank you for it.
Creating a supporting cast of characters is vital for a good story; people we will remember, love, dislike, laugh with and become attached to. Without them, there wouldn’t be much of a story, so just remember to develop them and flesh them out properly.
Next week we’ll continue the theme with supporting characters and just how important they are to any story.
Next week: The Importance of Secondary Characters