Supporting characters in protagonist design


Now that I’ve done a series on plot, I figure it’s time to do a series on my favorite topic of all time: Character.

I love characters. As much as I love plot, I love character ten times more. Why?

How many of you could remember the plot details of The Empire Strikes Back the first time you watched it? Now compare that to how many of you could remember every facial expression and snarky comment that Han Solo made?

Not a movie nerd? What about Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind? Can you list all the myriad intricate turning points in that gigantic tome of brilliance? No? Even so, I bet you remember some of Elodin’s eccentricities. I mean, who wouldn’t remember a lunatic sorcerer who walks around naked and convinces people to jump off towers?

Plot is awesome. But character is king.

Characters will thrive long after the stories in which they were first born have faded. Character is what allows stories to be told because character is unique and (honestly) plot is same song second verse a whole lot faster and much much worse. I love plot. But that’s the truth. There are no new stories, just fresh methods (characters) to tell them.

Characters can be as unique as we are, and that makes them unlimited.

So what I’ll be working through in this series is different means and methods to create, refine, establish, and expand on character. Where do they come from? How do they find their voice? What are the tricks of communicating who they really are inside without giving too much away or boring people to death?

The best means I’ve found to present character in a story is with a lovely little tool called a supporting character.

Supporting Characters

Have you ever wondered at the fact that actors win Academy Awards for a supporting role in a movie? I used to. And then I began to understand how vital a supporting role is in a story.

Supporting characters are vital to storytelling. Even in Shakespearean soliloquies, the speaker has someone to relate to, even if it’s just the audience. I once saw a one-man show on the famous German composer Schubert, and even though it was just one man on stage, he interacted with other imaginary people around him. And his reaction to them demonstrated a great deal about who he was.

That is what supporting characters do: they present an opportunity to know a character from a different perspective.

So, what roles do supporting characters play in a story?

Well, supporting characters can do just about anything. They can be just about anyone, and as far as a role goes? The sky’s the limit.

Supporting characters can be sidekicks. They can be love interests. They can even be antagonizers. They can be fully realized, rounded characters. They can be stock characters inserted to simply advance the plot. They can be funny. They can be sad. They can be smart. They can be the village idiot. They can even function as ex deus machina—an act of God.

They can be someone who brings out the best in your main character. Or they can be someone who brings out the worst in him. They’re usually the opposite of your main character, but they don’t have to be.

But what they do, no matter who they are or what they are or why they exist, they are there to enhance your protagonist.

Examples for consideration:

The Man and the BoyThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Man is the protagonist, the one who tells the story. The Boy is the one who he is protecting, the one he is trying to save. Even though the Man is the main character, the story is about the Man relating to the Boy. … and it’s also about death and destruction and eating people. But that’s another story.

Chuck Noland and WilsonCastaway

Tom Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx employee who ends up stranded on a deserted island with no one but a beat up volleyball to talk to. The volleyball becomes “Wilson,” and even though Wilson never says a word, we all love him. And he shows us a side of Tom Hanks’s character that wouldn’t have been revealed otherwise. After all, he’s alone on a deserted island. What else is he going to do to tell us who he is if he doesn’t talk to a volleyball?

Roger Rabbit and Detective Eddie ValiantWho Framed Roger Rabbit?

Roger Rabbit is the main character of this crazy 1980s movie that combined animation with live-action. But Roger Rabbit was such a ridiculous character that he couldn’t have held down a protagonist role alone. That’s why you needed a crusty, grouchy, toon-hating detective in a supporting role to help keep him on track.

All that to ask, can you write a story without a supporting character? Sure. But your story may not be effective as it might have been without one—or two—or twenty.

Uses for supporting characters

If your main character is too serious, he needs a funny sidekick. This is a Batman and Robin example. Or, if you only look at the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight universe, it would be Batman and Alfred. Batman is far too dark to hold down a story without injecting some kind of humor into it. Not a lot, mind you. But a snarky butler like Alfred puts just enough laughter in that we don’t all want to jump off a balcony at the end of the movie.

If your main character is too silly, he needs a serious sidekick to help him focus. This goes back to the Roger Rabbit example. If your protagonist is too crazy and funny, people won’t take him seriously.

If your main character is overly confident, he needs a sidekick who is right more often. This is a bad example but there was an old cartoon show from the 90s called The Tick, and the Tick was an idiot and didn’t know it. But that’s where his trusty sidekick Arthur the Moth came in. Arthur was a former accountant and was always able to point out when the Tick went wrong, even if the Tick didn’t realize it.

Another interesting example is the dynamic between two fully rounded characters featured on a science fiction show called Stargate Atlantis. Lt. Colonel John Sheppard is technically the main character of the show, but Dr. Rodney McKay is equally as important. Actually his character predated the Atlantis show with an appearance on the foundational Stargate SG-1 television show. But they function alongside each other in Stargate Atlantis. Dr. McKay is pretty much the smartest person alive, and he’s very sure of the fact; but Sheppard is a closet math genius. And there are many times throughout the series when Sheppard is able to match wits with McKay when no one else can. And the way they both react to it tells us a lot about who they are as characters. (My best friend just did a post on friendships, and she used the SGA crew as examples … I’m so proud of the geek she’s turning into.)

Supporting characters can be fully realized characters – you just don’t focus on them.

Sometimes, the difference between your protagonist and your supporting characters is simply the focus of your story. The best example I can come up with off the cuff is from the Twilight books.

Bella Swan is undoubtedly the main character. Most of the series is told in first person, her voice. But Edward Cullen is a fully rounded character too. We just don’t get to see into his head. But Stephenie Meyer’s truncated work Midnight Sun was designed to give readers a look into Edward’s thought processes. Midnight Sun was Twilight from Edward’s perspective, but she hasn’t been able to finish it yet.

Edward is a supporting character in the Twilight books, but the character himself is completely realized and can stand alone in his own story.

Supporting characters can be stock characters with little back story.

If you don’t need to create supporting characters with full back stories, you don’t have to. An example of stock characters used in supporting roles are the other District Tributes from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

Many of them aren’t even named, or if they are it was only mentioned once. There are 24 Tributes altogether, but only one of them, Katniss Everdeen, is the main character. The rest are supporting roles, and their level of development ranges from Peeta (who is extensively developed) and Rue (who is marginally developed) to the others who die straight out when the Hunger Games begin. We really only know their district numbers.

But the story wouldn’t happen without them. They are plot devices that advance the story or deepen the culture or the main character’s view on the world. Nothing more.

In Greek literature, writers would use gods as plot devices. I think it’s the Iliad; Athena pops in to save the day at the last minute during some battle. It’s been a while since I read it. That’s what’s usually referred to as ex dues machina, an act of God. It’s a plot device where a supernatural being steps in to save the day when all hope is lost. Most modern audiences don’t go for that anymore, but in ancient history, it was all the rage.

But the same is true for a random passing stranger who encourages your protagonist. Maybe someone who witnessed a vital piece of the puzzle in a mystery too. You don’t have to go into deep detail about a supporting character if all you’re going to use him for is advancing the plot.

However …

Supporting characters can surprise you the more you get to know them.

Even though building a full back story for a supporting character may feel like an exercise in futility, I still recommend it for any character you create.

Sorry to return to the Twilight universe, but this is an example I just can’t pass up.

Jacob Black started out as an inconsequential plot device, a means for Bella to learn the Quileute legend of the Cold Ones. But the more Meyer worked on him, the more real he became. Meyer herself fell in love with him as a character, and pretty soon she had created a far more substantial role for him. He even ends up narrating a third of the last book! Now people can’t imagine the Twilight series without Jacob Black.

So don’t write out a supporting character just because you think he’ll only be useful for advancing the storyline. You never know what a supporting character can teach you.

Supporting characters are essential for telling a story. People are social creatures no matter how reclusive we may think we are. Supporting characters give main characters a reason to live, a reason to keep fighting, a purpose to keep going. They enhance your main character, push them to succeed, or sometimes kick them while they’re down.

So when you’re creating your main character, don’t forget to throw in a supporting character too. You’ll be glad you did.


Leave a Reply

0 thoughts on “Supporting characters in protagonist design

  • Novel Girl

    Love this post! Supporting characters are always there to make the protagonist look great. But they can come in many forms.

    If you love Wilson from CASTAWAY as much as I do, you’ll be very excited to see him included. I think he’d be proud. 😀

  • Ryek Darkener

    Reblogged this on Ryeks Blog and commented:
    Wonderful and straight to the point!
    In addition, I think that there is one other reason for having supporting characters.
    From the reader’s point of view, they make the protagonist more real, comprehensible, sharper.
    However, I do not think that they always make the protagonist look great. Take “The Dark Knight”, again, for example. Does Alfred, in the end, make Batmen look great? For me as a non-native speaker “great” has a very positive touch, like “wonderful, admirable”. Maybe a cultural misunderstanding. Nevertheless, Alfred clearly shows that Batman has stepped outside the rules for civilized human beings, and that he, Alfred, at no price is willing to follow, even if he could. For me this is one of the most important scenes of the film. And yes, without a supporting character this message never had worked.
    This brings me to my additional point. The supporting character tells the story from his or her point of view. But not only for the reader! The supporting character is the one who checks the story in the writing process for being logical and understandable. And if he doesn’t understand the plot, the reader won’t either.
    Therefore, your article now leaves me now with the task to find some supporting characters who explain my next story to me. Life could be so easy 