You may have a great story. You may have a great protagonist, great antagonist, fantastic setting, all the sup-plots and conflict in the world, but if you don’t have good supporting characters, your book is going to fall flat. On its face. In the mud. With everyone watching.
Supporting characters are the life of your novel. If they are neglected, it will certainly be noticeable. A character who is but a shell, a hollow name attached to a few lines of dialogue who serves no other function than to allow your hero to be awesome, or your villain to be villainous, will not only keep from adding to the depth of your novel, but will also detract from it. This is not to say that every single being mentioned in your text must have an elaborate backstory. It would be ridiculous to spend any time working on the profile of every pedestrian your protagonist passes on the street. However, the characters your protagonist will be interacting with on a regular basis must have depth, well-rounded personalities, and most importantly, a unique character voice.
But how can you write these characters into your story? How can you keep them from being stale, robotic, stick figures that carry your hero to the climax? It may be more simple than you imagine. By crafting your supporting characters outside of your novel and then allowing their unique beings to seep through into your writing, you will find that these characters will suddenly come to life.
- Giving Characters Depth
First of all, get to know your character. You don’t need to spend much time on this. You don’t need to fill out a form of likes and dislikes, name all of their siblings, childhood pets, their first love, or their favourite food. But you should get an idea of their history—a basic knowledge of who they are, what they stand for, and why they get up in the morning. I find it particularly useful to keep a Pinterest board with images I’ve chosen to represent each of my supporting characters. This gives me a feel for who they are and what they look like that I can come back to in my writing. A short backstory, if only a couple of sentences long, will give your character depth, even if you never come out and explain that story in the novel. Your readers don’t need to know everything about every character, they just need to know that more exists than what is written on the pages. Aragorn, from Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, is a good example of a character whose backstory is crucial to the plot.
- Giving Characters Personality
Sometimes it is tempting to write every character as a simple carbon copy of yourself. However, it is important to make each character unique. I find it useful to assign each of my more important supporting characters a Myers-Briggs personality type. This helps me to shape their actions and dialogue in a manner according to their personality. It keeps every character from being too much like and other, and makes them more interesting to readers. Bringing in the people you know from everyday life is very useful here. Many of the characters in my writing will be loosely based off multiple people that I know, a sort of mish-mash of real life experiences. This not only makes them more realistic, but more personal as well. Effie Trinket, a very unique character from the Hunger Games series, is quite memorable because of her rather flamboyant personality~and style, of course.
- Giving Characters a Chance to Change
Always remember that not all “good” characters have to be likable, and not all “bad” characters have to be unlikable. A character’s personality does not always define where they stand or their situation. In addition, allow your supporting characters to grow and change throughout the story, as does the protagonist. Or allow their true nature to be revealed slowly, over time, so that they turn out to be not at all what the readers expected. This can be done particularly well through the redemption of a character. These are the characters readers will become the most attached to, the ones who are most transformed, whether for better or for worse. Take for example, Boromir in Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, who redeems himself by dying a heroic death to save the lives of his companions.
- Giving Characters a Unique Voice
Use your character’s depth and personality to get inside their brain and discover how they think, speak, and act. Rather than merely shaping their actions to benefit your plot line, allow them to have opinions and beliefs of their own. Discover how your characters speak, whether influenced by accent or dialect, vocabulary, education, social status, etc. Give them filler words such as “like”, “um”, “I mean”, etc. Putting these small aspects of individuality into their speech will remind readers who they’re listening to.
To conclude, let your supporting characters be important. Let them have hopes and dreams and desires. Let them be guided by conflicting loyalties and complex motivations and wild emotions. Let them be unique, let them stand out. Let them be memorable. Let them make mistakes. Let them be human. But most importantly, as a writer, you have to know them. Know them, and understand them, because if you don’t, no one will—seeing as they only exist inside your head.
Good luck with your writing. Hopefully you’ll grow to love your supporting characters, and your readers will too.
May your fingers fly!
Love to all,