We all need to have characters other than the protagonist and the antagonist. But we also need to remember that these characters are not props, either. They serve a purpose, even if it’s a small one.
1. They are the protagonist in their own life
Each character has their own version of the truth, as the Jains point out in the elephant parable. Therefore, there is always more than one side to each story. You don’t need to have multiple perspectives to do this but it can be hard. Nobody sees themself as a sideline act, so you must hold up this mirror to portray this.
2. The difference between a minor and a supporting character
supporting characters are often close to the protagonist – or antagonist – in some way. They could be useful or they could be a foil, and can provide insight which our protagonist has missed. A minor character often makes only a few appearances in the fiction, and is often static. Long story short, supporting characters are connected to our major players.
3. A supporting character doesn’t have to support
In fact, they can be many things; a character who plots, a character who foils or a character who disappoints. Just so long as they are important in some way, a supporting character can assume any form. Take Lamprey in Pinocchio; he acts like a friend and is streetwise, complementing Jiminy Cricket’s (or The Talking Cricket’s) role as a guide.
4. Why are they there
How do they relate to the plot, or members of the audience? When writing, you have to think about how complex your character needs to be. Their purpose is often a little more than making the protagonist look better. In fact, they could be better than them in some ways.
5. Deuteragonists and tritagonists
A deutoragonist can be a sidekick, or a human companion of sorts. They can also be a confidant, like Emilia to Desdemona in Othello. A tritagonist is often a caricature, minor character who has a signature trait. And this one memorable trait is what makes them tick, such as being idiotic.
6. One-stop characters
This can be an odd minor character, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, who only appears a few times, but is very popular. The Red Queen is interesting because of her bossy, pompous attitude and is therefore a satire on the Monarchy. But this can also be a character in the protagonist’s past who they were close to, like Henry Clerval in Frankenstein, who acts as a cheerful character to Victor’s depressing voice.
7. sub-plots and multiple narrative threads
In frame narratives like Frankenstein, or works with subplots like The Changeling, a minor or supporting character can become important. In Nights at the Circus, Walser becomes a protagonist when the novel changes to his perspective when he is with the shaman. In certain modes, like crime fiction, this works better because there are witnesses and people who know the victim.
8. the henchman, the fan and the advisor
These are all different supporting characters. Henchman characters might come in pairs to include a two opposite characters such as smart and dumb, kind and cruel. These might observe the protagonist and make sure they fail, whilst serving as a decoy antagonist. The advisor can be deceptive or helpful, such as Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes or Iago in Othello. Either way, the influence the protagonist in strange ways. The fan is usually an ardent admirer, and can be obsessive about whatever it is they are fanatical about.
9. conflicting or matching goals
Are the protagonist and the supporting character fighting for the same cause? Do they have the same desire expressed in different ways? Sometimes, two seemingly similar characters can end up having internal differences. And it’s the internal similarities that bring two people together.
10. the real world
As a writer, think over all the people in your life who have been there. There might be your lovers, your family, a favourite teacher at school, or an interesting girl you met on a cruise line. Travelling a lot helps, as well as reading the newspaper and hearing about other people’s lives.
11. Don’t let them steal the show
Yes, they’re interesting, but they aren’t the character who stands out the most. That is the protagonist, even if it’s that everyone else around the character is interesting and they are the boring one (Beware of characters like Napoleon Dynamite).
12. a protagonist?
There are two ways this can go down. The first way is to make them a false protagonist – someone who occupies a lot of the novel, but is not someone who the audience identifies with. The second is if our protagonist is killed off – like in Alfred Hitchcock’s psycho, or Tess in Hardy’s novel, and Angel replaces Tess right at the end.
13. How do they affect the protagonist?
Does the protagonist hate them? Were they a childhood sweetheart? What’s their 15 minutes of fame in the protagonist’s history. Whether the protagonist acknowledges them or not, they will have an effect on our protagonist.
14. are archetypes a good thing?
stereotypes are fine for minor characters, but not so much for supporting ones. Whilst it’s almost impossible to avoid stereotypes, all it takes is one difference to break away from the mold.
15. are they a friend or lover?
Best friends and true loves make excellent supporting characters. They are like the cement that holds the protagonist together, or they can destroy a them through betrayal. Our protagonist will often live with their lover, or spend a lot of time thinking about them for some reason. Their closest friend has been with them through thick and thin, and can be counted on.
16. circles of trust
A minor character, such as a housekeeper, might the closest character to the protagonist because of their closeness to our protagonist’s private life.
17. do we like them?
Are they neutral, lawful or chaotic? I’m using these because these lines can be crossed or blurred, and it’s a more accurate picture of real life rather than “good” or “bad”. The media often gives us chaotic evil characters, and lawful good ones, but there are others. For instance, a lawful evil character would be very traditional, conformist and very business-like in the way that he does his dirty work, whereas a chaotic good does good deeds very erratically, and can actually cause mayhem whilst attempting to save the world or whatever — whether it’s causing the paper-boy to crash his bike whilst saving a baby from a fire, or just accidentally getting into trouble. Beware, if you don’t deal with these traits in the right way, a chaotic good character can be the victim of the deus ex machina and the lawful evil can be seen as, well, too “lawful”.
18. what do they think of other characters?
If the story is anything but about them – which it probably is – they will probably observe characters and comment on them, particularly if they are a supporting character.
19. are they a narrator?
Do they exist in a frame narrative, or are they actually narrating these events? It’s almost a double-bluff by having a minor character as the narrator, because we’re led to believe that the story is about the narrator. The Great Gatsby is a good example; although Nick Carraway is our narrator, Gatsby seems to drive the plot and Nick is just a vehicle and outside spectator – or at least that’s one reading of the work. Either way, it elevates their status and gives them more depth as a character.
20. make them active
Any character who is passive can get rather irritating, since they might as well be a vegetable. Some waver and dance around of the line between active/passive, such as J.D. Salinger’s Holden, but that’s another kettle of fish.
21. give them strengths and weaknesses
Like a protagonist, they are not perfect. A supporting character can be more round and complex with illusion of a character arc, but minor characters are usually flatter because of their less frequent appearances. Minor characters often have a single trait, which spreads into their lives, such as collecting seashells or appearing at random occasions. Unless you intend it to be this way, this can turn into a running gag, because it caricatures the character and often satirizes them.
22. are they present in the action?
Is this character actually there when the action takes place, or are they having the events narrated to them? This is particularly important if you are writing a flashback narrative; your character could be listening to the protagonist relay the events that happened 50 years ago, when the story takes place.
23. ghost characters
these might be long-lost relatives or dead characters, whose identity do not go much further than their name. Originally meant a non-speaking character on stage, the usage can be extended to a brief nod to old lady at the bus stop or a pretty woman in a red dress.
A cameo character is the king of the minor characters. Often a tribute or the wit in the troupe, a cameo character is character who appears once in the novel, and doesn’t need to appear again because they are so interesting. They are similar to a ghost, but the difference is that they are talked about, like a legendary figure. Kilgore Trout in Slaughterhouse-five is a vague tribute to Theodore Sturgeon.
25. does the antagonist know who they are?
If the character, especially a supporting one, is important to the protagonist then their opponent will probably notice. Or, if they are a fake friend/ frenemy, they might side with the antagonist. The plot thickens!
26. the trouble with talking objects and animals…
Could Toto count as a supporting character for Dorothy? Or what about a skull that can talk as if by magic? (such as Bob in The Dresden Files – he’s not really a skull, just an invisible sprite) The former, probably not since Toto is only a dog, even if he’s loyal. The former might work because of the power of speech, thus making them more human.
27. what do they represent?
In Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, each character represents a country – Kreisler is Germany, Tarr is England, Anastasia is Russia and so on. Is the Vicar supposed to represent religion, or a teacher education? An allegorical representation of money, greed or so on is especially interesting in fables.
28. are they at the beginning or the end?
It’s highly unlikely that the protagonist will be alone at the beginning or the end of the novel with 7 billion people on this planet. Are they with the random baker? Their mum? Whoever they are, somehow they get extra brownie points if they appear in a significant part of the story. Even if their appearance is a fallacy.
29. give them a catchphrase or gag
Not only is this funny, but it subtly says something about who they are. A catchphrase can sometimes be a personal philosophy for a character, or the way they react to a situation. As for running gags, be careful. They can be satire at best or pretentious politics at worst.
30. they aren’t extras
You are writing a play/novel. There is really no need to have endless lists of characters serving no purpose and wasting words. As for a play, this is different if it will be performed on stage, but the actual text of the play will only include the dramatis personae.
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