I’m on a writing deadline this week, so in lieu of a new post, I’d like to share this one from the archives for those who may not have seen it (or those who’d just like a refresher). This was originally posted June 9, 2016.
Writers typically spend a lot of time characterizing their protagonists. Which makes sense, as the protagonist is the character that the reader will spend the most time with. But it’s important to make sure that you’re not neglecting the characterization of your supporting cast, too. A good supporting cast can often elevate your book for readers, who will remember all of the characters they loved long after they’ve finished reading.
But supporting characters can also be harder to characterize than protagonists, precisely because we’re not spending as much time with them. You don’t have the same amount of space to devote to them. Most likely, you can’t dip into their POV either. So how do you flesh them out as fully as possible in so little space?
Here are my tips for writing supporting characters:
- Know their backstory
This isn’t to say that you should devote a large amount of space to each character’s backstory—in fact, it’s probably best that you don’t include it at all. But in order for you, the writer, to create a fully realized character, it’s important that you know the details that have shaped who they are. What’s their background? Where are they from? What’s their family like? What happened (or didn’t happen) in their childhood that shaped them? Asking yourself these kinds of questions can help you dig deeper into who your character is.
- Know their goals
Just like your protagonist, your supporting characters should have their own goals, desires, and motivations. What do they want, and how are they trying to get it? Sometimes these goals will align or intersect with the protagonist’s, and sometimes they won’t. Either way, remember that they don’t exist only to serve your protagonist or aid them in their goals. Keep in mind what these characters want and what they’re doing or might do in order to get it. Make sure that you—and the reader—understand what drives them.
- Avoid clichés
This is one of the biggest issues I see in unpublished manuscripts: secondary characters who are completely flat, and who I’ve seen a dozen times before. I can’t tell you how often I’ve read about a female protagonist’s two best friends, one who’s is extroverted and one who’s introverted, who have no other defining characteristics apart from that. I also tend to see a lot of cliché younger siblings (in YA in particular), as either the pesky little brother or the sweet, innocent sibling who needs to be protected. Make sure that your characters don’t fall into any common clichés.
- Give them multiple characteristics
This may seem obvious, but it’s another issue I see a lot: supporting characters who have less than a handful of defining traits and aren’t developed beyond that. While it can be helpful to paint in broad strokes to establish extremely minor characters, you’ll want to go deeper with your more prominent supporting cast.
Here’s an exercise that I find helpful: Write down the five most prominent traits of your character (strong, sweet, smart, stubborn, etc.) Now try to write down five more. How hard was it to come up with ten traits? And are any of them synonyms or closely related? For example, if you’ve written both “fiery” and “fierce,” or both “stubborn” and “persistent,” or both “kind” and “compassionate.” These are all variations of the same note, so to speak, and a sign that your character isn’t as developed as they could be.
Also, keep in mind that just because you can identify ten traits doesn’t mean your reader can. To extend this exercise further, ask your critique partners or beta readers who have read the manuscript to list ten traits. Can they do it? How much repetition is on the list? And are their ten traits the same ones that you thought you were conveying?
- Think outside their norm
It’s also important to understand what this character is like in various situations, not just their normal/default state. For example, you might not think of a character as being particularly angry or hot-tempered. But everyone has something that makes them angry. So what is it that angers your character? How do they act when they’re angry? What’s the angriest they’ve ever been, and what did it take to get them there? Now think the same way about other emotions. What are they afraid of? What makes them happy? What makes them embarrassed or worried or ashamed? By understanding their emotional triggers and their behavior in all types of situations, you’ll be able to write them more complexly—and create a fuller character in the process.
What do you think? What else is important for writing supporting characters? Do you struggle with characterization? Let me know in the comments!
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