How to Write Strong Supporting Characters

Photo credit: Yoshplay! on Flickr
I’ve mentioned this before, but some of my favorite characters ever aren’t the protagonists of their respective stories—they’re supporting characters. Sturmhond (Siege and Storm), Magnus Bane (The Mortal Instruments), Kenji Kishimoto (Shatter Me) and Sirius Black (Harry Potter) are easily among my top favorite characters, and none of them are protagonists.

We often discuss how to write strong, interesting characters with our minds on the protagonists, but supporting characters are just as important and should receive just as much attention as our protagonists do when being written and developed.

But what makes for a strong supporting character?

  • They have their own lives and backstories. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to go into every detail of that backstory in the narrative (in fact, with few exceptions, it’s probably best that you don’t). But knowing the lives of our characters, supporting characters included, helps us to create a more three-dimensional, fully-realized character. And speaking of which…

  • Their world doesn’t revolve around the protagonist. Your supporting characters have their own dreams, priorities and goals. Sometimes their goals may intersect with your protagonist’s goal, sometimes not, but they don’t live to serve your protagonist. When they’re offscreen, they’re still going about their lives, experiencing the world and moving towards some kind of goal—all things you’ll want to keep in mind when writing your supporting characters. 

  • They have their own motivations. And sometimes (though not always) those motivations may come at odds with your protagonist. Again, remember that even when your supporting characters are working directly with your protagonist towards the same goal, their motivations may not be the same as your main character—and that’s something you’ll want to consider and keep in mind. 

What else is important to remember when writing supporting characters?

Twitter-sized bites: 
Supporting characters need just as much development as protagonists, and here's why: (Click to tweet)  
What makes for a strong supporting character? Writer @Ava_Jae explains a few important characteristics. (Click to tweet)


RoweMatthew said...

One thing I love about supporting characters is that they are free of the main plot. They aren't stuck in the predictable drag of hero archetype or redemption arc. They just do what they do which is often awesome because it's unexpected. Of course they are part of the main plot and sub plots but they don't need to be there for the whole thing and they don't need to jump through all the hoops.

Ava Jae said...

Yes! That's a great way of looking at it, and I totally agree. Great point!

Jen Donohue said...

Fantastic! One thing I think about on occasion is what characters do "off screen". On occasion, I'll brainstorm separate back story, or somebody is referenced in another story, that kind of thing. I've more or less made the decision that my urban fantasy books are all written in the same "world", and that helps me with this kind of thing so there are fictional bands people listen to, etc.

Ava Jae said...

That sounds great! I like the idea of several books in the same universe so to speak—that can be great for world building. :)

Sarah Allen said...

Totally agree with you on this one! Often the supporting characters are my favorite. Like Ben Linus in Lost, or Snape (or yes, Sirius Black :). Great post!

Sarah Allen:

Ava Jae said...

Thank you so much, Sarah! Supporting characters can be pretty fantastic when they're well-developed.

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