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Dear Story Nurse,
How do I figure out which supporting characters need to be in my story? I’ve read oodles of articles about the importance of secondary characters, how they drive the plot and reveal important things about the protagonist, but none about how to figure out who those characters are in the first place.
My protagonist starts out very much alone—recently discharged from the military and estranged from her family of origin. Over the course of the story, she builds a support network for herself. Some of that will be people who are new to her life; others are people who were already there, but she didn’t realize she could rely on them.
There are quite a lot of ideas that I want to explore in the story, though I’m not sure how many will make it to the final draft. Here’s a short list:
- the control that money exerts over our lives
- family, community, and accepting support
- coming to terms with your own weaknesses and those of others
- trauma and recovery
- openness and acceptance as the antidote to shame
- the importance of telling your own story
I have a solid sense of who the protagonist is as a solitary person, but I don’t know who the people around her are. Who are her friends? Her coworkers? It’s such a broad question that I’m not sure where to start.
—Who’s Next? (he/him)
Dear Who’s Next?,
This is a great question! And you’ve already got the beginning of your answer to it. Just as protagonists in some ways embody the Big Idea of your story, supporting characters are often avatars of those themes you mentioned, as well as vehicles for tone. When you’re looking at the push-pull of plot momentum, supporting characters can provide both the push and the pull. And a well-rounded cast will do a lot to fill out your setting.
Theme is the easy starting place. You’ve got that list right there; just preface each theme with “a person who” and a verb, and you’ll magically have a list of potential supporting characters. For example, regarding money, you might have:
- a person who provides money to the protagonist
- a person who withholds money from the protagonist
- a person who asks for and/or receives money from the protagonist
- a person who refuses money from the protagonist
- a person who teaches the protagonist about money management
This gives the protagonist ways to interact with the theme, both grappling with it and being influenced by it.
You don’t need all of these people, and some characters will embody multiple themes. A great way to make sure your characters are complex is to give them a mix of positive and negative influences on the protagonist. For example, mixing in the family and community theme, an old military buddy who’s down on his luck might provide community but require financial help; a distant parent might give funds but withhold familial affection.
Tone is conveyed through characters whose interactions with the protagonist reliably have a certain mood or emotion. The obvious example is the comic relief sidekick. If you want to have a mostly poignant or intense story balanced by moments of humor, you can assign those moments of humor to a character who can be counted on to be funny. If your story is thoughtful and moral, a wise advisor character can reliably provide moments of insight. It’s up to you whether to have the protagonist seek these characters out when she needs a break from the main story, or to throw them together circumstantially.
Things happening to side characters can also convey tone. If the protagonist’s love interest is kidnapped by aliens and she’s determined to go after them and effect a rescuse, that adds a real sense of tension and drama. If this is the sixth time the protagonist has fallen in love with someone who’s then kidnapped by aliens and she just shrugs it off as inevitable, now you’re in the realm of the surreal. Even if the protagonist doesn’t directly interact with side character events, her opinion of them or thoughts about them help to set the tone of the book.
Plot movement often comes from outside the protagonist, which usually means it comes through supporting characters. Your protagonist needs to protag, so don’t rely on this too much; likewise, too many coincidences can turn off the reader. But if your protagonist is stuck, an interaction with someone else—intentional or not—can unstick them.
Sketch out your plot beats and look at what brings your protagonist from one to the next. Does she sit at home until a coworker drags her out for a night on the town? Does she party too hard until a friend sits her down and says “I’m worried about you”? Does she feel directionless until a passing stranger hands her a leaflet for a job fair? Does she feel lonely until she meets someone she clicks with? Does she sink into passivity until someone makes her so angry she takes action? Again, if every until leads to another person pushing the protagonist in a particular direction, she’ll come across as more of an object than a subject, which readers find dissatisfying. But it can work really well to have a character open a door for her, as long as she actively chooses to walk through it—or to have a different character slam a door in her face, motivating her to kick it open.
Setting is an underappreciated use of side characters. If your character is in New York City, she’ll have a different supporting cast than she would in rural Ohio, or on Mars, or in Faerie. Developing that cast will help make the setting feel real. Think about who she interacts with as she goes through her day, even interactions as glancing as thanking the bus driver as she gets off the bus, or ducking around the kids on her street as they play basketball. If she has any kind of routine, she’ll see the same people day after day or week after week; she’ll at least vaguely notice when they’re not there, or if they change. (For example, I work late one night a week, so I’ve gotten to know my office building’s janitor and overnight security guard. I warn them when I’m about to go on vacation so they don’t worry about me when I don’t show up. I’m just a side character in their life narratives, but they notice me. And when a different guard or janitor is on the overnight shift, I notice that too.)
In addition, the characters will shape the protagonist’s intimate, personal setting. Almost everyone seeks community of some kind. (Almost everyone has to make do with a community that’s not quite what they want, but close enough.) Giving your protagonist community will help you show who she is as she thinks about, has feelings about, and interacts with community events and spaces as well as community members.
Community is a very important tool for avoiding shallow characterization and tokenism, especially if your protagonist is marginalized or a minority in some way. If she’s a trans woman, give her a community of trans women. If she’s Jewish, give her a synagogue or a Jewish book club. You mentioned that she’s ex-military; that means she has a national community of fellow veterans. She may feel distant from these communities, or awkward in them, or unwelcome, or dissatisfied; she may realize she needs different communities than she has, or needs to look for smaller groups within her communities where she feels more like she belongs. But they need to at least exist, first because that helps the setting feel real and second because that helps your story be nuanced. If there are multiple veterans in the story, you can represent multiple experiences of military service and post-military life, which lets your protagonist just be herself without bearing the burden of representing all veterans everywhere.
I hope that gives you some useful places to start. Happy writing!