The Trouble with Supporting Characters

With most stories, we create supporting characters to help tell the story; a way of adding dimension, depth and colour, as well as lending support – be it in a good way or bad way – to the protagonist.
A story full of people is like real life. Some are good, some bad and some are fleeting. In fiction they have an important role to play because those supporting characters help the writer tell a vivid story that keeps the reader involved by sometimes utilising them as viewpoint characters. They may even be involved in subplots.
To help move the story forward, they are involved to a degree with the protagonist and his/her story, therefore they can cause conflict, change the direction of the story or affect the lead character. All this helps the reader understand the complex dynamics of characterisation.
But there are some drawbacks with supporting characters, and writers usually don’t discover these problems until they are well into writing their novels.
Most supporting characters that inhabit the main story shouldn’t really number more than a handful, otherwise the reader may become confused with who is who and it may be difficult for the reader (and the writer) to keep track of a multitude of people. Aim for clarity and don’t overburden a manuscript with a cast of hundreds.
Most novels have the protagonist and antagonist as main or primary characters. The secondary or supporting characters tend to be family members, close friends or colleagues, sidekicks/partners – who may be with the hero or they could be associated with the villain - mentors or teacher types, and of course, the clichéd love interest.
So what are the drawbacks of these supporting characters?
The main one is that some secondary characters have a habit of taking over or stealing the spotlight. In other words, the writer hasn’t recognised that the character has overshadowed the protagonist. This is a common problem, particularly in the first draft, because the writer is simply writing the bare bones of the story and needs to get it written.
First drafts tend to be the foundation of the story; the skeletal structure that will ultimately become a full blown novel, so the writing isn’t that structured, it may meander from the main plot from time to time and some things may fall into the background when they should be in the foreground.
These issues are ironed out in editing and redrafting. The writer should spot this. Remember that the story is about the protagonist – it’s his or her personal story, so the majority of the spotlight should always be on your hero.
If you see that one of the supporting characters has stolen that spotlight, then you need to make some cuts to bring your main character back into focus.
But how do you spot this? The best way to check is to count how many of your chapters relate to your protagonist. Then count how many relate to secondary characters. Most novels will have a main character percentage that hits around 70%.  So if you see that Character B appears in 35% of the book, Character C appears in 20% and Character D is 10%, you will see just how much of the limelight your protagonist has by comparison. In this example, the hero appears in only 35% of the time, which is the same as Character B.
So whose story is it? The protagonist or Character B?  If the balance isn’t addressed, it can cause major headaches and the reader may not be sure just whose story it really is.
The other problem with your supporting characters is that often – and this occurs with new writers – one or more turn into a cliché.  The love interest character is a cliché, there’s no getting away from it. It’s up to the writer to make the writing dynamic and clever enough to escape that label and present the story in such a unique way that it’s not even noticeable.
As an example, the “damsel in distress who needs rescuing” character is a huge cliché and almost always crops up in manuscripts. This is the 21st Century – women can kick ass, too. The other most often used clichéd character is the “stupid woman” who never listens to her hero boyfriend and decides to leave the safety of the car to investigate the creepy noises, despite being told not to. Or the one that runs from the haunted house in nine inch stilettoes and keeps falling over. There is also the one that walks stupidly into danger so that the hero can – you guessed it – rush in a save her.  This is contrivance ex machina.
Not all women are stupid and need the hero to save them every other chapter. The amount of writers that still do this is astonishing.
Another problem is that writers often inadvertently switch importance of characters halfway through writing, which means the protagonist and secondary character swap places. This confuses the story for the writer and reader. Be aware of this and correct it at editing and redrafting stage, or rewrite the story to change the protagonist. Be clear before you start writing just whose story it is.
Sometimes the supporting cast can turn out to be more wooden than a forest. If that happens, the story won’t have the support it needs, since the secondary characters help to tell the story. Characterisation is just as important for them as it is for your protagonist.
Supporting characters may not share equal spotlight with the hero, but their presence is what makes the story, so it’s important that they help bring the story to life without causing trouble. Be clear from the start who your characters are and what role they will play.  That way you will avoid these common problems.

Next week: Why your story needs high stakes.


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