Writing supporting characters

Well, now. Surely writing supporting characters is a lot like writing main characters, yes? Only different.

I’m not moderating the panel on this topic, so I feel no need to come up with a dozen questions so I can make sure the panel keeps moving along. But I did do some thinking about this, along the lines of:

What is a supporting character, anyway?

And here’s what I came up with:

a) A supporting character *could* be a secondary pov protagonist. It depends. If he/she is a supporting character, then the pov time should be substantially less than for the actual protagonist. But it’s not unusual to give a supporting character a little pov time.

b) More often, a supporting character does not get pov time, but he or she is named and has an important role in the story.

c) Every now and then, the protagonist is not the pov character, which does weird things to the protagonist/supporting character idea. Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles is an example. Francis Crawford is the protagonist, he centers the action and drives the plot, but he is not the pov character at any point in the series.

d) It should not be possible to mistake one supporting character for another. Aragorn does not speak or think or react even like Faramir, though they’re both Men, both good guys, and share something of the same heritage; far less does Aragorn resemble Samwise.

e) Every supporting character has his or her own backstory, traits, motivations, intentions, goals, and attitudes, which colors his or her point of view even if the pov is not explicitly shown by the author. The most important supporting characters should probably have their own character arcs.

f) And perhaps most important: Any supporting character will probably work best for avid readers if he or she is not a total cliche. By definition avid readers read lots of books. They are going to notice particular supporting characters that turn up over and over. The gay male friend of the plucky female protagonist, for example. Also the Irascible Older Mentor and The Naive Girl Who Needs Things Explained To Her.

Now, here is a related question: Is it okay to kill a supporting character? I mean, assuming the death drives the plot in some important way and isn’t just there to provide a tearjerker moment. I went back and forth on killing an important supporting character in a recently completed novel, and I guess I better not tell you which book or which side of the fence I landed on, but I will say, it was a tough choice even though I do like the way the story came out.

Okay, and last: A good clear example of supporting characters in an ensemble cast: The Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland. Five books in which each of the five main characters takes a turn as the pov protagonist, the others playing a supporting role in each others’s stories. What a handy thing I read that series right before being put on this panel, because I can’t think of a better series to look at if you are interested in how to handle a central protagonist and a crowd of important supporting characters.

Another, that I read years ago and really want to re-read, is the Tomorrow When the War Began series by John Marsden. That one is a little different in that the protagonist is the same all the way through and the story is told in the first person. A great choice for looking at a different way to handle supporting characters; again, there’s a number of very important supporting characters and they do all have plot arcs of their own.

That’s a MG and a YA series. Now, an adult series …

Okay, how about the Vorkosigan books? There again we get a large cast (because the series is pretty long), with various characters taking center stage and always a lot of important supporting characters, all handled very effectively.

Anybody got another book or series in mind that shows particularly good supporting characters?

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4 thoughts on “Writing supporting characters”

  1. The Tortall books have a really well developed cast of characters – in the Alanna books there’s her fellow knights and soldiers, the rogue’s court, her tribe members and apprentices, etc. Even the ones that don’t get backstory and whatnot get developed enough to have distinct personalities.

    Dresden Files and the Kate Daniels series are both long running series with a big back catalogue of characters you care about, although KD does a better job with making use of the longer runtime of the series to add layers to established characters. That’s why Andrea could carry her own book (not to mention the various supporting characters that get short stories). Getting Andrea’s perspective on Kate was really enlightening. The way a supporting character views your hero should be different from how the hero thinks of him/herself.

  2. I see how we all tend to think of series … or at least really long books like Cyteen! Good point about supporting characters not seeing protagonists as they see themselves.

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