How to Craft the Enduring Supporting Characters Readers Love
I’d be willing to bet money I don’t even have that a lot of your favorite characters are supporting characters.
Neville Longbottom. Gollum. Everybody in Crazy Rich Asians except Rachel and Nick. That chicken from Moana.
Who doesn’t adore these characters? There’s something about a supporting character that inspires bold moves and unique voices.
I personally suspect “that something” is the creative freedom we have when we’re not worrying about checking all the likability boxes. With our protagonists, we often have to fuss over pesky things like relatability and emotional investment. But supporting characters invite unfettered creativity.
So why do so many writers struggle to write stellar supporting characters?
Probably because there’s no quick-and-easy set of rules for this. The term “supporting characters” covers a wide range of character types. How you develop your side players depends on their role and prevalence in the story.
Mastering this skill requires a comprehensive understanding of things like:
- The hierarchy of supporting characters
- Types of supporting characters
- How to these characters to fulfill their role in the story
It might sound intimidating, but it’s actually pretty chill. In fact, you’re only one sentence away from getting started.
What is a Supporting Character?
Let’s begin with what a supporting character is not.
A supporting character is not a protagonist.
The protagonist (also known as the main character) is the central character whose story drives the plot.
Most stories only have one protagonist, but it’s possible to have two or more. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for example, features two main characters: Butch and Sundance.
But despite its extensive cast of very important players, the entire Harry Potter series actually has only one protagonist: Harry. Sure, Harry’s friends are important. But his motivation and goals are what drive the plot.
So what does that make Ron and Hermoine?
They—like every other character in the series—are supporting characters. Their job is to further the protagonist’s journey. They contribute to the conflict, reveal deeper truths about Harry, and do about a million other things I’ll address in a minute.
Now, every character you introduce in your story should serve an actual purpose. But not all your supporting characters are required to serve a profound purpose.
Dumbledore’s purpose is to force Harry to acknowledge his own inner conflict, confront his deepest fears, and harness the power of human connection. Big stuff.
Moaning Myrtle, on the other hand, provides comic relief and occasionally delivers information to move the plot along.
This discrepancy is why we divide supporting characters into two categories.
Ron and Hermione. Flounder and Sebastian. All the non-Jo March sisters.
Secondary characters are the supporting characters who help make your story what it is. They inspire or obstruct your protagonist’s choices. They heighten the conflict, contribute to the cause, or enlighten the main character.
These are the fictional folk who only show up once or twice. Remember the bookstore owner in Beauty and the Beast? Super tertiary. The guy shows up once. His only job is to confirm that this girl reads. Oh! And he fills out the song break.
While secondary characters help define the story and character arcs, tertiary characters tend to the details. They might drop some information or shine a new light on a theme or conflict. They may even simply be part of the worldbuilding, like the aliens in the Star Wars cantina.
The Importance of Developing Supporting Characters
Now that we’ve clarified what supporting characters are, let’s dive into the big question:
Why spend time developing these folks if they’re not the main event?
First, undeveloped characters are boring. It doesn’t matter if a character shows up in one scene or twenty-eight scenes. If they feel like a personality-free stick figure sent to deliver a message, your reader will lose interest.
Second, you’re trying to build something that feels real to your reader. That means you need characters that feel real.
Look at it this way: you’ve created a magical new world for your audience by taking the time to craft a complex protagonist with a fully developed character arc. Don’t shatter the magic with a supporting cast that feels flat and phony.
Third, every character that shows up in your novel should have a reason for being there. The development process gives you an opportunity to truly examine their purpose.
Now, this doesn’t mean all your supporting characters need an extensive backstory. How much you develop them depends on their role.
And let’s talk about what those roles might be, shall we?
Types of Supporting Characters
What follows are fairly wide character categories to help you consider the ways in which your supporting characters might influence your story.
I’ve excluded characters that exist solely to give information or fill out the world, because I’ve already said everything you need to know about them in this sentence.
An antagonist is any character whose primary goal directly opposes the protagonist’s goal.
We typically think of stories as having one antagonist. But the fact is, most stories have a primary antagonist as well as smaller supporting characters who also exist to antagonize the protagonist.
In The Hunger Games, everyone in the arena is technically Katniss’s antagonist because they’re out to kill her. But we understand that her most threatening antagonist is Cato, because he’s, like, really into killing.
However, her number one protagonist—the ultimate Big Bad—is the Capitol.
Regardless of where they rank on the scariness spectrum, antagonists serve the story by:
- Creating and exacerbating external conflict
- Poking at the protagonist’s internal conflict
- Forcing the main character to confront their own weakness and fears
- Reflecting of the protagonist’s darker desires and inclinations
In other words, antagonists do a lot to shape the plot, especially the primary antagonist.
Common Antagonist Archetypes
Friends and Partners
Who’s got your protagonist’s back? Who knows them better than they know themselves?
Your main character’s friends and partners are more than allies. They’re the people who truly understand your protagonist’s strengths, weaknesses, and hang-ups.
Who’s the person most likely to call out Harry when he’s being obsessive, ego-driven, or reckless? Hermoine. Who throws down with Simba over his abandonment of Pride Rock? Nala.
The ones who love us are the ones who demand more from us, and that’s why this type of supporting character often plays a huge role in your protagonist’s arc.
Friends and partners include:
- Friends (go figure)
- Professional partners
- Siblings, cousins, and other relatives
- Sometimes love interests
Take note that in romance novels, the love interest is typically considered the antagonist. I know it sounds weird, but think about it:
The goal of a romance’s protagonist is often to either achieve love (but they’re not getting it from the love interest) or avoid love (but the love interest keeps hanging around being all lovable). Either way, this person is always in their way.
This can also be true if you’re not writing romance. In The Hunger Games, Peeta’s an antagonist because Katniss is only made more vulnerable by her affection for him and distrust of him.
But sometimes the love interest is simply a partner, like the supportive wife who gives the end-of-act-two, tough-love pep talk in every movie about an inspiring football coach.
Common Partner Archetypes
A caregiver lives to take care of the protagonist.
“Take care” can mean:
- Provide for
The caregiving tends to be mostly one-sided. For example, Ron Weasely might do some things to look out for Harry, but you wouldn’t say he’s a caregiver because it’s a mutually supportive relationship.
Mrs. Weasely, on the other hand, is absolutely a caregiver. Her primary goal in her relationship with Harry is to give him the sense of love and security he’s never had. And her role within the story is to serve as the living example of the all-powerful motherly love Dumbledore keeps jabbering on about.
A caregiver character is your protagonist’s well of eternal support and (mostly) unconditional love. They ask little-to-nothing in return except that the protagonist takes care of themselves.
This supporting character helps your main character see the good in themselves and provides space for them to heal after heavy conflict. And a fed-up caregiver is one of the most devastating indications that the hero(ine) has seriously screwed up.
Common Caregiver Archetypes
This would be the person your protagonist is responsible for, whether they’re a child, an aging parent, or a trainee.
Responsibility for a care receiver might be the cause of your protagonist’s conflict. Or this supporting character can merely complicate the conflict or be the reason the protagonist makes a bold move.
Sleepless in Seattle is a great example of this. The only reason the very level-headed Sam meets Annie at the Empire State Building is because his son, Jonah, has run away to meet her himself. Sam’s driven by the sheer terror of what might happen to his child alone in New York.
And then sometimes care receivers are simply there to provide comic relief or show the protagonist’s tender side.
Common Care Receiver Archetypes
You don’t need a lot of help working this one out, right? This would be Gandalf, Dumbledore, Haymitch, Rafiki… anyone whose primary role is to guide and enlighten the protagonist.
Mentors are really good at forcing protagonists to confront their shortcomings and helping them discover their potential. This supporting character might be the one to nudge the hero(ine) towards adventure (like Gandalf). And they’re often the person the protagonist returns to at their low point.
Common Mentor Archetype
This is kind of a trick category because all the character types I just listed can function as foils.
A foil is a character designed to highlight specific traits or circumstances of one character by providing contrast.
Killmonger and the Black Panther are both powerful men driven to protect their people. But while Killmonger takes the approach of violence and revenge, the Black Panther chooses peace and compassion.
In The Hunger Games, one love interest (Gale) cares more about individual survival while the other (Peeta) prioritizes the greater good. While neither of them is the protagonist, these foils symbolize Katniss’s internal conflict about her own role in a suffering world.
How to Develop Supporting Characters
So with all these different types of supporting characters, how do you know how much development these characters actually require?
Let’s take it step by step.
Defining Their Role Within the Story
First, determine whether the supporting character in question is a secondary or tertiary character.
Then clarify why that character is essential to your story.
Are they delivering important information? Reflecting your protagonist’s dark side? Creating conflict? Filling out the world?
When you know why you need this supporting character, you’ll get a clearer idea of how deep you need to go on development.
Generally speaking, tertiary characters don’t require an extensive backstory or deep psychological analysis. Because of their brief appearance, making them feel real to your reader is often a matter of giving them:
- A distinctive voice
- A goal, even if it’s only a small goal specific to the scene they’re in
- Maybe one defining character trait
- A few specific physical details—appearance, physicality, style, etc.—that create a sense of character
- Possibly a quirk or two to keep them from feeling too cookie-cutter
You may have to do some backstory building or clarify their motivation depending on the role they play in your novel. But even then, you only need enough details to fill out a few sentences of background information.
Secondary characters call for deeper development regardless of the role they play. Let’s take a closer look at that.
All Secondary Characters Must Have…
Just like your tertiary characters, your secondary characters must have a distinct voice and personality.
They should also have:
A big goal. Many of your tertiary characters will have goals like “share information” or “win the contest.” But because your reader gets the wide-angle view of your secondary characters, you want to show them the wide-angle goals.
Does this supporting character ultimately want to win your protagonist’s heart? Become rich and famous? Avenge somebody’s death?
Motivation. What’s the Why behind your secondary character’s goal? Are they longing for a sense of security or belonging? Are they driven by a fear of death or worthlessness?
Strengths. What is this supporting character ridiculously good at? You might want to give them skills that complement or compete with the protagonist’s abilities. Also keep in mind how their strengths could be used to create or overcome conflict.
Weaknesses and flaws. In what ways does this character fall short? A supporting character’s weaknesses could give the protagonist an opportunity to shine, create an obstacle for the protagonist, or even reflect your main character’s hidden vices.
Internal and external conflict. I don’t say this to crush your joy but because it’s true: we’re pretty much all in conflict all the time. Your supporting character should be, too.
Secondary Characters May Also Have…
If you want to go super deep with a secondary character or you plan to go deeper with them over the course of a series, you should also develop:
A fleshed-out backstory. We’re all shaped by our happiest and most traumatic memories. If you’ve done your work, this is true for your protagonist, too. And it needs to be true for any secondary characters who have a sizable role to play in the story.
What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to this supporting character? How has it shaped their perspective, defined their motivation, and inspired their goal?
Fears. If you’re going to give a lot of page space to a character, you need to know what they’re afraid of. Like it or not, a lot of human decisions are driven by fear. And one of the easiest ways to make a character feel real is to let your reader see their vulnerability.
An arc. Character arcs aren’t just for the starring roles. Let your major secondary characters evolve, too. Not only does it make them feel more human (What human being could go toe-to-toe with dark wizards multiple times and not change?), it also makes your story more interesting.
You see, when one character changes, it affects everyone around them. Maybe they abandon the mission or steal the spotlight or become so overcome with jealousy they don't know how to be anything other than an insufferable jerk waffle.
Giving a secondary character an arc can also be a great way to create a foil for your protagonist. How could their evolution represent an alternative reaction or show the outcome of a different choice?
Finding the Right Balance
Is there any risk of over-developing your supporting characters?
Sure, maybe. If you find yourself obsessively mapping out your secondary character’s family trees and examining the influence of your tertiary characters’ economic, religious, and cultural backgrounds, then you’re probably going too far. (And frankly, you’re probably avoiding the scary work of actually writing your novel.)
But the bigger issue is not whether you’re overdeveloping your supporting characters, but whether too much of that development is making it into your story.
Making these beings real for our readers means making them real for ourselves first, and that often means doing a little more development than is actually necessary. The important thing is recognizing when you’re dropping a detail your reader doesn’t need to know.
Look out for things like:
- Irrelevant tangents and flashbacks
- A lack of clarity about who the main character actually is
- Supporting character backstory that doesn’t influence the way the reader understands the central conflict, themes, or relationship between the supporting character and protagonist
Ultimately, supporting characters are there to, you know, support. They make your fictional world more colorful, fill out the life of your protagonist, and give greater depth to your themes.
Love them, explore them, and celebrate them. Design them to be multi-dimensional human beings (or elves, aliens, etc.).
Just don’t let them run off with your narrative.
Everybody Needs a Good Support System
As you develop your supporting cast and the world they inhabit, don’t forget that Dabble is always here to help.
You can brainstorm with your fellow writers in the Story Craft Café. You can check out the extensive character development library in DabbleU. And, of course, you can use Dabble to keep track of all your brilliant side characters as you plan, draft, and revise your novel.
Bonus: new Dabble users can try it for free for fourteen days. That includes all premium features including the famous Plot Grid, co-authoring, image search, and more! You don’t even need to involve your credit card to start your free trial. Just sign up here and start creating.
The Chosen One. It’s a trope that many people love to hate despite its pervasiveness across popular culture. If you’re unfamiliar with the Chosen One, it’s a popular trope or narrative device used across books, TV shows, and movies where a character is destined to fulfill a certain role or mission, often because they have unique abilities or traits. These traits are frequently tied to magic, meaning you’ll see this trope a lot in fantasy and other types of speculative fiction, especially those with a young adult audience.
So how do you write well then? Realistically, there are a few things universally considered “good” writing. The story should follow a logical plot where one action feeds into another. The characters should behave in ways that align with their established personalities. There should be some high points and low points and stuff in between. Generally, good writing is also well edited and follows most of the conventions for grammar and punctuation. While you can write well with typos and mistakes, you run the risk of distracting the reader to a point where that good story becomes not so good because it’s unreadable. Ultimately, the success of things like your voice and your characters are going to be up to your reader and you’ll never please everyone. But we can take some steps to ensure we please more people than not.
That’s great—our fiction should reflect the world as it is and that means including people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin tones. But the history of writing about people of color is kind of… awful and it’s important to remember that you can’t just throw in a BIPOC character without giving some serious thought to how you represent and describe that character.