30 Days of Tips for Developing Characters: Supporting Characters

Supporting characters "support" the protagonist, the theme and the overall story. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares advice on how to create supporting characters who serve your story.
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Daryl Hannah as one-eyed assassin, Elle Driver, in "Kill Bill" 

Daryl Hannah as one-eyed assassin, Elle Driver, in "Kill Bill" 

To read the full series of 30 Days of Tips for Character Development, click here. The post is updated with every new tip so you can keep track of all the character creation advice.

The protagonist isn’t the only one who gets to go on a journey. Every single character in your story serves a purpose, sometimes more than one purpose. If they don't, kill them. Seriously. No actor wants to play a character who has nothing to do but listen to the main character drone on and on. Yawn. You might be able to merge together smaller, less interesting characters to create one compelling composite character to serve those collective functions. 

#1 Rule: No one wants to see a boring character on screen.

We've all heard people say, "That character stole the movie!" Those are the roles actors want to play. Even if they're just on screen for 5 minutes, if they can bring a fascinating character to life, that screen time is more valuable than two hours of airtime playing a boring sidekick.

I used to discuss my characters with my therapist. She was a movie buff and an avid reader. She loved characters who were more like the clients who sat on her couch, willing to peel back the layers to understand what made them tick. Everyone has layers. Fictional characters should reflect even more complexities than real-life people are willing to expose. Having more than one type of trait makes for a more interesting person.

Supporting Characters

Life informs people's choices. Your secondary characters will challenge the choices your main character makes, so it's important to understand them. 

Michael Tabb wrote a great article on character types, "A Final Reflection on Character Types," where he shared, “All characters reflect in some way: the premise, the hero’s journey, their goals, and the opposing belief system on which you base your story.”

During the next three days, we'll explore supporting characters, including the reflection characters, love interest, and mentor characters. 

Chart it out.

Create a chart to keep track of the following exercises. Use a spreadsheet, or Word doc with a table, or create a grid on a whiteboard. Whatever works for you. We just need a simple way to keep track of the traits of your characters that you can use for brainstorming your outline later (next week's fun!). 

Day 19: The Reflection Character

As per Michael Tabb, Reflection characters mirror the protagonist or premise as a constant reminder of the value and stakes in the story.” 

Answer the following questions in a way that supports the story premise, the protagonist and the stakes of the story:

1. What's their backstory? What life events defined your secondary characters? (Visit Day 2, 3 and 4 on Creating Character Backstory)

2. How do they interact with the world? How do they react under pressure? As I've shared before from Robert McKee, a person's character is defined by how they behave under pressure.

3. When were they born? What historical events occurred when they were born? Or what fictional events within your story took place during that character's "life"? For example, people who lived through World War I have a different view on life and war than those who served in Vietnam.

4. What makes your character interesting? And how do those characteristics help push the protagonist either toward their goal or away from it? Remember, supporting characters need to serve a purpose. 

5. What do they want? Everyone wants something. What is their goal in the overall story, or what is their "want" in terms of the hero? Are they there to help or hinder? 

6. How would they speak? Are they direct? Do they have an accent? How would their worldview impact their dialogue and participation in discussions? 

7. Choose names for them that are distinct from other characters. (See Day 12: Naming Your Characters)

8. Don't be predictable. Be open to surprises. When a story unfolds where nothing unpredictable happens, it's easy to drift off or start surfing your phone. But when you're watching a film, or reading a script, where unexpected things occur, it grabs your attention. Supporting characters can offer surprises, too. Find scenarios to put them in that take your audience by surprise.

Day 20: The Love Interest

Michael Tabb: “The love interest comments on and challenges the protagonist’s inner journey and character arc. After all, love has the truly transformative power to change a person.”

Keeping Michael's direction for the love interest in mind, repeat the above exercise.

Day 21: The Mentor

Michael Tabb: “The mentor is a personification of the protagonist’s outer journey (the external mission).”

Finally, if the mentor character supports the protagonists' outer goal, how would the above exercise help form who they should be to best serve that goal? 

Day 22: Distinguishing your characters. 

Now that you have a list of the important supporting characters, make sure they are unique. Separate. Stand alone. Are each one of them distinguishable enough that if you heard a line of dialogue from them with your eyes shut, you'd know which one was talking?

No two characters should be alike. Even identical twins have their own personalities. I know. My father was a twin, as was my grandmother. The same... but very different.

Next up: Theme, Setup and Payoff

Read the full series of 30 Days of Tips for Character Development, click here

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

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