Thursday, August 28, 2014

Three Essential Questions to Ask Your Supporting Characters


My drama teacher used to say, “There are no small parts. Only small actors.” While this might have been used at the time to assuage the ego of a rather precocious eight-grader, the truth of it nonetheless rings true. The supporting characters of any play, film, or novel are arguably one of the best ways to make your story well-rounded, timeless, and engaging. 

Imagine Harry Potter without Neville or Luna. Imagine Pride and Prejudice without Lydia. Imagine Romeo and Juliet without Mercutio. Imagine Step Up II without Moose.

Across genre, style, and century, supporting characters are the legs that hold the story-table up. But character development of any kind is tough, and the smaller roles are usually the first to be neglected.

Don’t fall into that trap.

Whatever you’re working on right now, take a break to evaluate your supporting cast with the following questions.

1. Are they a cliché? It’s way too easy to make your supporting characters a two-dimensional idea rather than a fully fleshed out person, and that can show itself most obviously as a cliché. Ask yourself if you’ve seen this person before. Are they a stereotypical nerd? Jock? Princess? Some other character from the Breakfast Club? A wise and mysterious old man with a long beard?

I’m not saying these things are bad, but they’re tropes in the world of story. They’ve been done before. And if you’re writing one of them, chances are you’ve limited your character.

If you absolutely need it to be a cliché for specific reasons, just make sure it’s not only a cliché. Give him depth. Give her quirks. Which leads us to point number two…

2. Are they surprising? Bring something new and unexpected to each character. Dumbledore was a wise old man with a long beard, but his odd quirks brought an element of surprise to an otherwise predictable trope (Lemondrops, anyone?).

Add insecurities. Add odd obsessions or unexpected viewpoints. Add hidden talents.

Most people aren’t predictable, and your supporting characters are a unique opportunity to add a level of weird to your story that your protagonist might not be able to pull off.

3. Do they have their own character arc? The best supporting characters have an arc, just like the protagonist. They have a goal, a conflict, a quest to overcome that conflict, a climax, and a resolution that shows they’ve grown or changed in some way.

Look at your character’s beginning and end. Can you see significant change? If not, beware—you might have a plot device, not a character. (P.S. Extra points if the supporting character’s arc reflects or acts as a foil for the main character’s arc!)

Did I miss anything, dear writers? Who are some of your favorite supporting characters—and why? 

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