by J. E. Nice
I love a good supporting character. Not only do I personally tend to find them more interesting than the protagonist, but they can add so much to your stories, whether it’s adding to the plot, creating more scenes or to be used as a device for your main character.
Many writers may be tempted to overlook fully developing their supporting characters, because they’re putting all of their effort into their main cast. It’s understandable. Sometimes your main character just needs a best friend to lean on, and that’s all they’re there for.
But by not discovering who that best friend is, you could be missing a trick.
Let me give you an example.
Nearly ten years ago I started writing a fantasy novel. I had a vague idea for the plot but I had a definite protagonist, antagonist, and one supporting character who was going to help my heroine.
I wrote half of the book before I had to stop and acknowledge that something was missing. My main character and the bad guy were in two separate places, and I needed something extra there until they met towards the middle of the book.
I created two new characters for this purpose, a young maid and an old army veteran, and placed them in the vicinity of my antagonist.
What I wasn’t expecting was for the maid to be so curious about what was going on or quite so headstrong. Neither was I expecting the two to hit it off quite so well in the first scene I wrote with them alone together.
By the time I’d written the two into my existing manuscript, the maid had nearly completely taken over the plot.
What did this add to my novel? Well, it’s now the first in a trilogy. The whole story went from being one of a strong woman to three women all at different stages in their lives but all on the same path. By adding those two characters, the whole book became stronger and more fun to write.
If that hasn’t convinced you to pay more attention to your supporting characters (or to create some more), here are five benefits those characters could bring to your stories:
1. They will help to strengthen your plot.
No matter how much you plot and plan your stories (if you do at all), your characters will always surprise you as they develop and grow. It’s the sign of a well written character, a good story, and that you’re really getting into the writing. (Which is good; if you’re bored of writing, the reader will be bored reading it.)
By giving some focus to your supporting characters, you’re giving more scope for surprise from your cast. Who knows which supporting character could throw up a red herring for you or be the key to the whole mystery.
They may not take over the plot, but on the other hand…
2. They may take over your plot.
If your supporting characters are particularly strong-willed, they may surprise you and this could include taking over the story, as mine did. If this happens, you can choose to embrace it and see where they lead you, embrace it but make sure they stay in line, or keep them quiet but take notes (see point five).
Your plot and story might change if you allow them to take over, but it could become so much better than you originally thought.
3. Their stories will make the whole story more interesting.
By getting to know the backstories, motivations and personality traits of your supporting characters, you’ll be able to create subplots. Those little storylines that occur alongside, and potentially weave in and out of, your main plot. These subplots give your reader something else to focus on, especially when they need a break from the frantic drama and action of your main plot, or maybe when you want to create a little suspense. This can also include some comic relief and a bit of humanity, and could end up being integral to the climax of the overarching storyline.
4. They’ll help to develop your protagonists.
If you create your supporting character with a full backstory and personality traits, then you’ll have someone complete for your protagonists to bounce off. By doing this, you might get to see a new side to your main characters. Maybe a supporting character will rub them the wrong way, or perhaps they’ll get on better than you had anticipated.
However your main characters react, it’ll give them a little more depth and something new for your reader to consider and potentially love about them.
5. You’ll find they give you more material.
If your supporting characters turn out to have a particularly interesting backstory, or if they’re trying to take over, they could give you new ideas and material for further stories and books.
A particular favourite supporting character in your novel could have a short story, novella or even their own novel. This can be great fun for you as a writer, but readers who loved the original story will be more than happy to have more of what could be their favourite characters.
If you’re building your author platform and business, a short story about a supporting character can be a great freebie for your growing readership. Or you can try submitting it to publications as a marketing tool for your novel.
So those supporting characters could not only make your plot better and give your main characters more depth, they can be great for sales, marketing and building a loyal readership.
Honestly, you have nothing to lose by devoting more attention to your supporting characters. So give them a chance to shine. They may surprise you.
Jenny Lewis is a fantasy writer, freelance marketing assistant and runs the fiction writer’s resources hub Write into the Woods. Her trilogy, The Last War, is available now and you can get the first book, mentioned in this post, Matter of Time, for free. Jenny lives in Bristol, UK, a city where it is downright encouraged to be weird, wonderful and every inch yourself, with her husband and Labrador puppy, Bucky.