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What Are Supporting Characters?
A supporting character is a person who plays a role in the life of a story’s protagonist. Novelists and screenwriters don’t anchor a story around supporting characters, but they use them in the process of worldbuilding to create a compelling backdrop to the main character’s story arc.
A well-written supporting character will have a character arc, a strong point of view, and clear personality traits. In many cases they will be the types of characters a reader might recognize from their own life and—like main characters—they will grow and change over the course of the storyline. Characters who don’t change are known as flat characters, and while certain bit parts work just fine as flat characters, the majority of your secondary parts must be dynamic and engaging to a reader or viewer.
Margaret Atwood’s 8 Tips for Writing Supporting Characters
Margaret Atwood is known for works like The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale. Here are eight key tips from Margaret on writing supporting characters:
- Your secondary characters are formed by their life experiences. Character and event are inseparable because a person is what happens to them. This is true for main characters and minor characters alike. Even if a secondary character only appears sporadically throughout your novel, short story, or screenplay, supporting characters exist insofar as they experience events.
- Secondary characters must be three dimensional, just like main characters. Your job as a writer is to learn about your character by observing how they interact with the world around them. Characters—like real people in real life—have hobbies, pets, histories, ruminations, quirks, and obsessions. They also have a backstory, just like the protagonist does. It’s essential to your novel that you understand these aspects of your character so that you are equipped to understand how they may react under the pressures of events they encounter.
- Keep a track of your secondary characters with a character chart. When Margaret writes, she makes a character chart on which she writes each character, their birthday, and world events that might be relevant to them. In this way, she keeps track of how old characters are in relation to one another, and also how old they are when certain fictional or historical events occurred.
- Make your characters interesting. Characters, like people, are imperfect. They don’t need to be likable, but they must be interesting. For example, Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab was certainly not likable, but he was compelling, and that is Margaret’s bar for writing characters. Sometimes the characters in supporting roles are the ones who are easiest to push boundaries with. You should aim to create an interesting character that directly abets or stymies the protagonist’s goal but in a way that doesn’t necessarily conform to a worn-out archetype.
- Every character needs to speak with purpose. When your characters are speaking, they should be trying to get something from one another or make a power play. As you draft each scene, ask yourself what your characters are trying to get. What are they trying to avoid? How do these wants inflect their speech and guide what they say—or don’t say? As you compose dialogue for your supporting characters, be mindful of their character roles within your primary storyline (as well as any subplots). Use their conversations efficiently to contribute to worldbuilding, character development, and the escalation of plot.
- Take time to get dialogue right. To get dialogue right, you must understand how your characters speak. This is likely influenced by where they come from, their social class, upbringing, and myriad other factors. Speech and tone are always bound up in what has happened and is happening to a character. Shakespeare was exceptionally deft at encoding his characters’ speech with these social markers. In your own story, if the lead character is from Colorado and his best friend is from New York, their dialogue shouldn’t sound the same. Just as their worldview and personality traits must be distinct, so too must be their way of speaking. Most first-time authors tend to get their major characters’ dialogue correct, but it’s supporting characters’ dialogue that can separate great authors from those who are merely decent.
- Choose secondary character names wisely. Be sure names are distinct, Margaret cautions, so that readers can tell characters apart. In cinema, the original Star Wars trilogy does a great job of this. Assuming Luke Skywalker is the protagonist, supporting character names like Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Obi-Wan Kenobi are all distinct from one another, which aids a first-time viewer who is new to the Jedi universe.
- Surprise your readers with unpredictable supporting characters. Margaret wants characters that surprise her and her readers. She connects this to humans’ evolutionary history: We don’t have to pay attention to things that are stable. But when something unexpected happens—the wolf comes out of the woods—we pay attention. We remain alert. Find ways to subvert your readers’ expectations about what secondary and tertiary characters do in a novel, short story, or film. Place your supporting characters in scenarios your audience could not have seen coming.
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