What’s worse than a flat main character? A hoard of underdeveloped supporting characters, for one. In my years as an editor, I’ve seen a great share of new fiction writers fall victim to that flaw, sometimes without even knowing it. In fact, even if you’re a seasoned writer, this fatal shortcoming can still rear its ugly head from time to time.
But why does it happen? What makes supporting characters so difficult to write? I like to place the blame on those needy main characters and their tendency to be “firstborns.” They’re a lot like toddlers—demanding little creatures that crave your attention and insist on getting their way. When main characters aren’t in the spotlight, they throw tantrums and derail you from the plot. While it might be easy to give in and get caught up in their complex backstory, doing so leaves their crew of supporting characters quite pale in comparison.
You may wonder why supporting characters are so important. After all, isn’t the whole point of a story to tell the main character’s journey? Well, yes and no. You need supporting characters to flesh out the main character and to give your story layers of realism. Just as in real life, characters in books have friends. They’re closer to some than others, and each friendship is unique. Supporting characters can and should shape and influence main characters, making development possible for all involved.
Here are a few tips for achieving well-rounded supporting characters who play an active role in the plot:
- Give your supporting characters a rich backstory. Just as you would with your main character, it’s equally important to have fleshed-out secondary characters that you know well. Their past, their motivation, and their likes and dislikes will directly influence their actions. It’s also important to focus on their goals, because chances are, those goals will either help or hinder the goals of the main character, which will directly impact their relationship and encounters with them.
- Share the spotlight. If the main character hogs the spotlight for too long, a reader can become disinterested in the story. They might pull away or lessen their empathy for the main character or what happens to them—and that can lead to disaster. While your supporting characters should give way to the main character when necessary, it’s good to have them toe the line, sometimes even battling it out for the spotlight. Some of the most memorable books I’ve read give glorious moments to supporting characters, making me love them that much more. Those are the books that stick with me long after I’ve read them, their characters infinitely more realistic because of that single moment. Without it, the supporting characters become weak and useless, acting more like a prop than a person, in which case they’d be better off completely cut from the story.
- Balance the areas in which supporting characters are needed. Supporting characters are a lot like accessories—they should bring out the best in an outfit without overpowering the main ensemble. In other words, they should fit well with the rest of the story, but they still need to take a backseat to the main attraction. When you achieve that, you get a character that readers will care about, often even as much or more so than the main character.
- Make supporting characters as complex as your main characters without getting caught up in the details. It may be tempting to chart out every detail about each character you come up with, but don’t get bogged down in the process. As the author of the story, you can certainly venture off into the full life your side character leads, but for the sake of the main story, stick to the basics. You want a backstory that is enriched but still relates to the plot and the main character. This will make your supporting characters realistic while showing readers that they are part of something much bigger.
- Keep secondary characters to a minimum. While it’s true that some books will require more secondary characters than others (Harry Potter is an excellent example), having too many can confuse readers and will often result in an abundance of flat supporting characters rather than a few strong, well-developed ones. If you’ve reworked a character, fleshed out their backstory, and they still don’t add anything to your story, it’s time to give them the boot.
Supporting characters are the glue that holds a story together. Though they aren’t the main attraction, it’s okay—vital, even—to have memorable secondary characters that leave an impact on the reader, even if only for a moment. When done right, they can make the world you’ve created richer and more layered, and that’s something readers simply adore.