How To Write Supporting Characters That Readers LoveJul 23, 2023
Are you writing a novel and realizing that, while you know your protagonist through and through, the supporting characters still need some development so readers will fall in love with them? If so, you’ve come to the right place!
In this article, The Novelry writing coach and Sunday Times bestselling author Libby Page shares six tips on how to create developed and distinctive supporting characters who forward the protagonist’s story (as well as their own).
Libby Page has published four UpLit novels – if you’re wondering what UpLit is, Libby also wrote this brilliant blog on this fascinating genre of fiction – and is a master at writing a full complement of major and minor characters in a genre that frequently demands a community. Alongside the publication of her fourth novel, The Vintage Shop, in paperback this week, Libby shares six tips that will prove beneficial for writers of all genres:
- Think about how the supporting characters support your story
- Consider using supporting character archetypes
- Develop backstory and character traits to make your supporting characters feel three-dimensional
- Give your supporting characters their own character arc
- Keep the supporting characters distinct
- Establish a unique voice for each character
What is a supporting character?
A supporting character might be your protagonist’s friend, partner, colleague, family member or a looser connection who nonetheless contributes to the story. They might incite conflict, comic relief, or save your protagonist from disaster.
Depending on the story you are telling, you will need anything from one or two characters to a whole range of them, each playing their own part.
While the protagonist might be the star of the story, you will also need to consider the rest of the cast: the supporting characters.
I love writing supporting characters. In my latest novel The Vintage Shop there are a few characters of whom I’m particularly fond – a dishevelled but charming gardener in his seventies and the warm-hearted husband of a somewhat prickly main character were both great fun to write.
Bringing minor characters to life is how you build authenticity and create a believable world for your reader because, like people, characters are not islands. To make your protagonist feel real, they need to exist within the network of family, neighbours and acquaintances we all have in our real lives. And, just like we all have that eccentric family member or friend with an interesting past, supporting characters can bring richness to a novel with their own stories, motivations and characteristics.
Examples of good supporting characters
A memorable supporting character can really make a novel. When I think about books I have loved, it’s often the supporting characters I remember. For example, Parvaneh, Ove’s kind neighbour in A Man Called Ove who challenges Ove’s curmudgeonly behaviour and eventually coaxes him out of his isolation with her relentlessly positive nature.
‘Are you always this unfriendly?’ Parvaneh wonders, with genuine curiosity.
Ove looks insulted.
‘I’m not bloody unfriendly.’
‘You are a bit unfriendly.’
‘No I’m not!’
—A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman
In Jojo Moyes’ Someone Else’s Shoes, it was Jasmine, an unlikely friend of Nisha, one of the main characters, who I particularly warmed to. She brings a refreshing warmth that contrasts with Nisha’s initially cold personality.
‘Nisha Cantor, are you asking for my help?’
It is the first time that Nisha’s face loses its hard edges. She stares right back at Jasmine for a moment, and something strange happens to her expression, as if a million tumultuous things are taking place beneath the surface. ‘Are you going to make a big deal out of this?’ she says finally.
Jasmine’s expression is incredulous. ‘Uh… yes?’
— Someone Else’s Shoes, Jojo Moyes
Both of these supporting characters challenge the protagonist and drive change in the novel. Supporting characters might be considered minor, but they can have a big impact on the direction of a novel.
Here are some tips to consider when writing your supporting characters…
1) Think about how the supporting characters support your story
Supporting characters are such fun to write that it can be tempting to get carried away and create dozens of them. But it’s important to always consider exactly what they are bringing to the story.
If they’re not adding to the novel, do they really need to be there?
Mostly, a supporting character’s role will be to contribute to the main storyline either by hindering or helping the character development of the protagonist. If the supporting character is there as an obstacle they will create conflict (all stories need conflict!) and if they serve a helping role they will move the protagonist that little bit closer to their goal.
Sometimes a big role of a supporting character is simply to give the protagonist someone to talk to. Without anyone for a protagonist to voice their thoughts to there would just be a lot of interior narrative, which can grow tedious if overused. Thanks to supporting characters we get to hear the protagonist’s thoughts and fears out loud, like in this conversation between one of my main characters, Lorna, in my novel The Island Home, and her best friend, Cheryl.
‘So why don’t you go?’ Cheryl suggested, simply but with a gentleness too.
Honestly? I’m terrified.’
Cheryl nodded then.
‘That makes sense. All those memories…’
‘It’s not just the memories, though. What if my brother doesn’t want to see me? What if I’m not welcome? I wouldn’t blame him after all these years we’ve been out of touch.’
— The Island Home, Libby Page
A supporting character might help us understand the protagonist more deeply by giving meaningful context to their story and their motivations.
In my first novel The Lido, one of the main characters, Rosemary, is a widow. I would consider her husband George to be a supporting character given that he only appears infrequently via flashbacks.
By getting to know George and his relationship with Rosemary, we come to see why the lido she is campaigning to save means so much to her. We understand her motivation and, I also hope, his character brings an added poignancy to Rosemary’s grief: the reader comes to understand exactly what she has lost in a specific, not just vague sense.
George was afraid of being a nobody: he was a somebody with her. Rosemary was afraid of being left behind: he held her hand and took her with him.
— The Lido, Libby Page
Perhaps your supporting character plays a role in the tone of the novel. For example, in Me Before You, Louisa’s father brings some well-needed humour to a book that contains heavy themes.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said my father. ‘Can you imagine? If it wasn’t punishment enough ending up in a ruddy wheelchair, then you get our Lou turning up to keep you company.’
— Me Before You, Jojo Moyes
But he also helps us better understand Lou’s character by providing the context of her upbringing. She is the way she is – upbeat and determined in the face of difficult circumstances – in part because of her no-nonsense parents. Her father is also central to the plot because his losing his job is one of the reasons Lou continues working for Will Traynor even when she finds the job challenging; she feels the burden of responsibility to provide for her family given her father is out of work. Without this pressure, brought in via the supporting character of Lou’s father, who knows whether Lou might have simply quit her job before falling in love with Will. And if she did we would have been robbed of (in my opinion) one of the most moving love stories of all time.
Supporting characters play a key part in the overall plot, even if in seemingly subtle ways.
2) Consider using supporting character archetypes
There are a number of established character types, or archetypes, in literary and film culture that you could consider leaning on for your supporting characters. At The Novelry, we refer to the classic list of twelve as well as a more simplified version that details the four main archetypes often found in novels.
Some online research will help you find examples of common archetypes, and you can use both novels and films as reference points.
TV shows and movies offer further examples of character types and archetypes. For instance, film critic Elena Lazic comments that many comedies have a sane, stable protagonist, prompting the surrounding characters to be insane 'oddballs' that relate the audience to the protagonist: like they're saying, are you seeing this?
You don’t need to be prescriptive and suddenly include every single archetype in your novel, but it can be an interesting starting point if you’re feeling stuck for inspiration with your own supporting cast of characters.
Archetypes exist for a reason and turning to tried-and-tested examples might provide inspiration. Consider including character archetypes for your supporting characters whose traits contrast with those of your main character in order to add depth and richness to your novel.
You may find this article on tropes in fiction useful.
3) Develop backstory and character traits to make your supporting characters feel three-dimensional
To help you write a well-rounded supporting character, think about their backstory, relationships, and motivations in the same way you would your protagonist.
They may play a relatively small role in your novel but they still need to feel real.
In this article for The Novelry on writing complex characters, author A J Pearce offers some great insight into how she came up with the backstory for her main character Emmy in her series of novels.
“…I needed to understand why she’s so compelled to help, and why she thinks she is qualified to do so. I had a great story, but I needed to flesh it out with the character’s motivations and convictions to make it believable.
Emmy is only twenty-two in the novel, so I spent a long time thinking about her family history – understanding why her parents are the people they are, and how that has affected her.
I wanted influences that would form the basis of Em’s strong belief that everyone has the right to be heard, together with her confidence that she can help them.
To get that, I picked her father from solid, upper-middle-class stock, while her mother is from a more politically motivated, bohemian family. Once I had that, I had a foundation for why and how she is who she is. I had a well-rounded character whose overall story informs her behaviour.”
— A J Pearce
This advice can be applied to your supporting characters, too. Even if you don’t have space in the novel to share the whole backstory of a supporting character, knowing it in your mind (or writing it down if that’s the way you work) will help you when writing. Your character’s background will inform the way they interact with the protagonist and how they contribute to the plot. Being sure about exactly who that character is and what motivates them will help you to write a believable supporting character.
4) Give your supporting characters their own character arc
A reader needs to care about your characters in order to want to keep reading and that applies to supporting characters, too. In order to get your reader rooting for your supporting characters they also need to go on a journey during the novel, rather than just acting as a stepping stone for the protagonist.
For example, in the New York Times bestselling novel Miss Benson’s Beetle, written by our writing coach and award-winning author Rachel Joyce, the protagonist Margery Benson sets off on a quest to discover a mythical beetle, inspired by her late father. She is helped along the way by her assistant, Enid Pretty. But Enid has her own motivations in life, very separate from what drives Margery.
‘You’re going to find the beetle,’ she said. ‘And I’m going to have a baby. I know it in my heart.’
— Miss Benson’s Beetle, Rachel Joyce
The main plot in this book may be Margery’s quest to find her beetle but as a reader, you feel just as invested in Enid’s journey and seeing how she is transformed by events.
Enid climbed on to a wooden jetty, hopping between the missing slats, while the breeze tossed her hair. Britain seemed another life. And it wasn’t just home that was as far away as it could be. Neither of us, Margery thought, is the woman we were when we met.
— Miss Benson’s Beetle, Rachel Joyce
5) Keep the supporting characters distinct
It can become confusing for the reader if there are too many supporting roles, especially if they do not have distinct characteristics. You don’t want your reader to lose track of who’s who and what their relevance is to the story.
Make sure the names of the supporting characters don’t sound too similar, unless it’s part of the story like in Really Good, Actually, Monica Heisey’s protagonist has a friend called ‘Lauren’ and another called ‘Emotional Lauren’. Write a list of all the names of the characters in your book and compare them, even read them aloud. You might be surprised to see that several characters’ names begin with the same letter, for example. Switch it up.
Consider giving supporting characters specific, varied physical attributes and perhaps play with contrasting backgrounds and ages if that makes sense for the story. Try to keep them distinct when it comes to their main personality traits, too.
It might help to keep a log of all your supporting characters, noting things such as:
- Their name
- Their age
- Their background
- Key physical attributes
- Key personality traits
- Their role within the plot
- Their relationship with the protagonist
If, when you look at this log, you see too many overall similarities, or several characters that serve the same role, consider changing things up or even cutting characters from your novel.
6) Establish a unique voice for each character
One way to help your supporting characters feel distinct is to establish a specific voice for them which will make their dialogue instantly recognisable and easy to differentiate from other characters.
This is partly why knowing the backstory of a supporting character is so important because this will inform the way they speak. Do they have an accent or use a dialect? Do they have a particular word or phrase that they overuse? Do they speak quickly or slowly? Do they waffle or keep to the point? Do they tend to make pessimistic or optimistic remarks?
Considering these things will help to create a unique voice that makes it easy for readers to differentiate between supporting characters. It will also help to make the character feel fully formed.
And one final thing to consider: not all supporting characters have to be human.
Six-Thirty got up and padded off to the bedroom. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, he’d been stashing biscuits under the bed for months, a practice he’d started just after Calvin died. It wasn’t because he feared Elizabeth might forget to feed him, but rather because he’d made his own important chemical discovery. When faced with a serious problem, he’d found it helped to eat.
— Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus
Claude and Peebo are the memorable parrots in Still Life by Sarah Winman and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. And one of my favourite supporting characters is Six-Thirty the dog in Lessons in Chemistry. He may be a dog but he has his own personality traits, voice and motivations.
Writing Coach at The Novelry
Libby Page is the author of four UpLit novels. Her debut, The Lido, saw her named a Guardian New Face of Fiction and became a Sunday Times bestseller within its first week of publication, before going on to be published in more than 23 global territories. If you’re writing UpLit, romance or women’s fiction, you’ll find Libby’s coaching to be as warm and uplifting as her novels. Sign up to one of our creative writing courses today to enjoy her one-to-one mentoring as well as a world-class writing program!