3 Tips for Writing Unforgettable Supporting Characters
In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about writing unforgettable supporting characters. And I’m excited about this episode because supporting characters don’t always get the attention they deserve. But they’re often one of the best parts of stories.
And if we want to immerse readers in a world that feels as rich and compelling as our own, our supporting cast of characters needs to shine. In other words, they need to be developed with as much love and attention as our protagonist and antagonist.
Now, just to make sure we're on the same page, supporting characters are any characters that are not your protagonist or your antagonist. They can be parents, children, best friends, co-workers, bosses, or villains and romantic rivals who create a sense of opposition.
And in general, each supporting character in your story will either support or thwart your protagonist as they try to achieve their goal. So, in other words, each supporting character provides an opportunity for conflict, aid, or both.
So, let’s talk about how to know which kinds of supporting cast members to include because that’s always one of the first questions I get.
How to Populate Your Supporting Cast of Characters
As you populate your story’s world, it sometimes helps to think in terms of the “roles” that might need to be filled. And the good news is that you know your main content genre, you’ll already have some of these roles mapped out for you. So, for example…
- If you’re writing an action story, you will need a mentor and at least one sidekick.
- If you’re writing a love story, you will need characters who support and thwart the relationship, as well as a rival love interest for one or both of your lead characters.
- If you’re writing a status story, you will need a mentor, a shapeshifter, and a foil character who represents one of the paths your protagonist can take.
So, my recommendation is to always start there, with the roles laid out by your content genres. So, think in terms of your main external genre and your main internal genre. And if you don’t know your genre, go back and listen to episode number two that’s all about choosing your genres. I’ll link to that in the show notes for easy reference.
Now, not all of your secondary characters will fall into one of these roles that your genre calls for, and that’s okay. You’re obviously going to have other types of supporting characters depending on the specifics of your idea. So, here are a few additional tips and tricks that can help you round out your supporting cast of characters with ease.
3 Tips for Crafting Memorable Supporting Characters
#1. Develop them just as fully as your protagonist and antagonist.
And this is number one on the list because this is what truly makes a character unforgettable, but not many writers take the time to do it. So, although not all of your supporting characters will spend a ton of time on the page, we have to think about our readers again here, too. Getting them to invest in the lives of our supporting cast of characters can be tough, but not impossible.
The main way to get readers to invest in our supporting characters is to fully develop them into three-dimensional beings. So, in other words, you'll want to develop them in the same way you did your protagonist and your antagonist, but maybe to a lesser degree. So, you can ask questions like:
- What does this character want? Why do they want it?
- What’s at stake if they fail to get what they want?
- What stands in their way externally? What about internally?
Now, you don’t need to do this for every supporting character in your story, but you probably know which ones will play a bigger role than others. For example, the character roles your genre requires will have an impact on your story. So you’ll want to do this exercise for those characters as well as any others you think will be important.
One of the main ways this will help you when it comes to writing your actual scenes is in the dialogue your characters exchange. So many writers email me and ask me how to write better dialogue… and really, it boils down to this. Every character needs to speak with some kind of purpose. And this purpose will be based upon their goals, motivations, and the conflict they face. So, as an example, consider how things like a supporting character’s goal or inner conflict could affect their speech and guide what they say or don’t say. It makes a huge difference, right?
Now, as with anything you develop for your story, it’s unlikely that every last bit of information will wind up on the page. However, it’s always better to know more about your characters than is necessary than to skimp out on their characterization.
So, anyway, that’s tip number one. You’ll want to develop your supporting cast in the same way as your protagonist and your antagonist but to a slightly lesser degree.
#2. Let them represent an aspect of the overarching story.
Like we talked about earlier, each of your supporting characters needs to serve a purpose in the overarching story. For example:
- They can help reveal key details about your character or plot or theme
- They can advance the plot in ways the protagonist cannot
- They can create conflict that stymies the protagonist in their journey
- They can reveal or highlight elements of the protagonist’s characterization, often by serving
- Their words, actions, or backstory can deepen the discussion of a theme
- They can motivate or otherwise aid the protagonist or antagonist
- They can further define or reveal elements of the story's worldbuilding
So, as an example, let’s look at that last one in a practical way. Let’s talk about how supporting characters can help you define or reveal elements of your story’s world.
Whether your story takes place in the real world or a made-up world, supporting characters can help your story’s world feel more immersive and real. They can help you set the tone of the world you’ve built through their behavior and dialogue. So, if the world is very harsh, they might behave differently than if the world was very posh, right? They can also help add dimension to your exposition by having their own unique perspective on the world, too.
Another thing we can look at is how supporting characters can help you express variations of your theme, too. For example, if you’re writing a romance, your supporting character could have a string of failed relationships. And these failed relationships could show your protagonist (and readers) what will happen if they don’t learn the lesson (or theme) of the story. Or you could have a supporting character who expresses the positive side of the theme, maybe they’ve been in a committed relationship for 40 years. This is something that helps make your story cohesive, too.
So, anyway, that’s tip number two. Let your supporting cast of characters (or at least the important ones) represent an aspect of your overarching story. Moving onto tip number three.
#3. Give them a character hook to help make them stand out.
Character hooks are things like personality traits, physical features, or associations that define a character and distinguish them from others. So, it’s something that readers can hang their memory on—especially in the early stages of a story—that helps them remember who is who.
And I did a whole episode on character hooks that goes deeper into the explanation of each type of hook and has a ton of examples. So, if you want to learn more, go check out episode number ten. I’ll link to that episode in the show notes for you, too.
For today’s episode, we’ll just run through them quickly. And I’ve come up with ten different types of character hooks you can play with in your story. So, we'll go through those, and I'll name a character from the Harry Potter series that has a hook like this. Here they are:
- Give your character an accent or a specific way of talking. Depending on where your character is from or what level of education they have, they might have an accent, use very specific phrases, or even some type of regional slang. Example: Hagrid
- Give your character an identifiable physical feature. Instead of describing every single aspect of a character’s appearance, choose one or two physical traits to focus on. Example: Dolores Umbridge
- Give your character their own body language or mannerisms. A character’s physical appearance is more than just how he or she looks. It’s also about the way he or she moves and interacts with the world. And just like in real life, a person’s body language can speak volumes about what they think and feel. Example: Neville Longbottom
- Give your character a human or an animal counterpart. In other words, this would be a person or an animal who is always with your character. Or someone that the reader couldn’t imagine your character being without. Example: Filch and Mrs. Norris
- Give your character a unique personality. This one’s important because, in real life, no two people are alike, right? So, to make your cast of characters more relatable and lifelike, give each character their own unique personality. Example: Gilderoy Lockhart
- Give your character strengths and weaknesses. The best characters in fiction have a good mix of both strengths and weaknesses. This is what helps us make our characters feel human and relatable. Example: Harry Potter
- Give your character a specific role in the story. Roles can be anything from a job to a place in the family hierarchy, to an archetypical role like that of a mentor or a sidekick. Example: Stan Shunpike
- Give your character a group or family connection. This is similar to giving your character a counterpart, but a little different because we’re talking about a larger group of people. Example: The Weasleys or the Death Eaters.
- Give your characters a dominant emotional state. Most characters slip into a default emotional state when stressed or under pressure. Example: Hermione
- Give your characters a part to play in concealing a mystery. In other words, use them as a type of red herring to mislead or misdirect readers. Example: Peter Pettigrew
So, hopefully, that helps. Honestly, giving my characters a hook is one of my favorite parts of developing a story. I think it’s so much fun and this is where I could spend a lot of time if I’m not careful. So, if you’re anything like me, tell yourself that you don’t have to have it all figured out right now. In other words, don’t get stuck here.