A book is made of more than just the main characters. You might have one or two main characters, a handful of significant supporting characters, then a cast of minor characters to make your novel full and intriguing.
But those supporting characters are just as important as your main characters! They deserve their own arcs, their own aspirations, and their own complex personalities. Supporting characters are an important part of worldbuilding in a story, and their actions can greatly influence the protagonist’s path.
Let’s talk about what a supporting character’s role is and how to write them well.
What is a supporting character?
A supporting character is a character who plays a role in the main character’s story. That doesn’t mean they’re just a plot device, but their arc isn’t the main focus of the story. They’re typically the people in your main character’s life, like their friends, family, coworkers, classmates, and love interests.
A supporting character should still have a developed personality, a character arc, and strong opinions. Your supporting characters should be fleshed out, just like your main characters. They might take the role of a supporter, antagonizer, or informant, but more on that in a bit.
What do supporting characters do?
Supporting characters can do things like add depth to your story, establish context for your world, help or hurt your main character on their journey, and make the story fun and interesting.
Imagine a book with only one character to understand why supporting roles are important.
Some characters will offer support and encouragement for your protagonist throughout their arc, while others will act as conflict starters.
They’re important for conversations where we can hear the main character’s struggles and ideas out loud, providing the character with guidance, and creating conflict.
Types of supporting characters
Supporting characters can play many roles in a story, but there are a few recognizable archetypes you’re probably familiar with. Sidekicks, romantic interests, henchmen, mentors, best friends, rivals, nemesis, confidants, comic relief — these are all archetypes of the supporting character. But there are three basic roles that all of these types fit under: supporters, antagonizers, and informants.
Supporters are important for taking on the role of a caring, safe spot for the main character (MC) to find comfort, air grievances, and reveal their feelings to the reader via conversations with their support system.
These characters can also challenge the MC by questioning their judgment, offering alternatives, and sometimes convincing them that they or their actions are wrong.
Think of one of the best friendship stories ever written–Lord of the Rings. What would have happened if Frodo were sent on his journey alone? He couldn’t have made it all the way without the support of Sam, Pippin, Merry, and the other people who helped him along the way.
Antagonizer characters, as you’ve probably guessed, have the opposite role. They’re there to challenge your MC in a negative way. They’re working against the MC.
There’s typically one character that we refer to as THE antagonist, but you’ll ideally have more than your main antagonist.
Since conflict drives stories, we’ll want to have more conflict than just one antagonizer can provide through the whole book. Another important note is that antagonizer characters aren’t necessarily villains. They can be, of course, but some characters oppose your MC for non-villainous reasons. They might even do it by accident.
Their role can be provoking, angering, or riling up your MC for any reason. It doesn’t have to be intentional, and it doesn’t even have to be rational. It could be your MC’s best friend, but they produce conflict because of their outlook, personality, or a relationship dynamic between the two characters.
In short, an antagonizer is a supporting character who is there to stir sh*t up.
Informer characters, as the name suggests, act as informational sources for your MC. While their role is to provide information and guidance, like the mentor archetype, they should still be fully formed characters. This is the easiest type of supporting character to accidentally turn into merely a plot device, so take special care that you build informer characters complexly.
What are examples of supporting characters?
The supporting characters in a story are often the main character’s social group. Co-workers, classmates, friends, family, roommates, and love interests are all examples of the types of roles a supporting character can take.
Here are some examples of famously well-written supporting characters in popular books.
Supporting characters in Hunger Games
Haymitch Abernathy — Haymitch is the cranky, stubborn, unwilling mentor to Katniss and Peeta. He’s reluctant to help them out, but he eventually grows to care for them and becomes a genuine mentor and source of help. Haymitch works as a supporter, an informer, and in some instances, an antagonizer. But overall, his role is supporter.
Peeta Mellark — Peeta can be seen as the main character’s love interest (arguable), but he’s definitely her friend. He’s always on her side, even when he’s been brainwashed to kill her. Peeta is a supporter character.
President Snow — Throughout the entire series, President Snow is the villain. He’s an antagonizer supporting character. He’s responsible for the Hunger Games, which is the main conflict our characters have to confront. He also works toward Katniss and Peeta’s deaths for the rest of his life after they escape the games alive.
Effie Trinket — For an idea of someone who is almost solely an informant, we might look at Effie Trinket. While her role becomes more important throughout the series, in the first book, she’s our look into the Capital and how it works. We get a lot of exposition in a natural way through Effie as she guides Katniss and Peeta through what is expected of them in this new world.
Supporting characters in Pride and Prejudice
Mr. Darcy — Mr. Darcy, as the love interest, is a supporter character. In the beginning and middle of the book, you might say he takes on the role of an antagonizer character, just because he gives our main character, Lizzie, so much grief. In the end, we see that most of the antagonizer moves he made were a result of misunderstandings and his own social ineptitude, leaving us with Mr. Darcy, the supporter.
Mr. Collins — Mr. Collins is an antagonizer supporting character throughout the whole book. He foists his unwanted marital advances upon any Bennet sister who will glance his way, he’s to inherit their house upon Mr. Bennet’s death, and he’s just a weird little pervert. He causes grief no matter what his goal is, and he thinks he’s doing amazing work.
Mrs. Bennet — Mrs. Bennet is an antagonizer character with the best of intentions. Her role can switch back and forth, as Lizzie grows tired of her, then fond of her, then pities her, and around again. While she has the best of intentions in pushing her daughters to marry, she does so in the most egregious and grating ways possible, often getting in the way of her own goal by scaring away the rich and eligible bachelors who are, indeed, in want of a wife. What do you think—is Mrs. Bennet a supporter or an antagonizer?
Supporting characters in I Am The Messenger
Audrey — Audrey is one of Ed, the main character’s, best friends, as well as his love interest. Though she causes him a considerable amount of pain, Audrey is consistently a supporter character. Her presence creates inner turmoil for Ed, but she’s always on his side.
Bev — Bev is Ed’s mother, and she is unquestionably an antagonizer character. Every scene she’s in ends with Ed feeling beatdown, disrespected, and unmotivated. Her only role is to criticize and demoralize him. Even though he ends the story forgiving her, Bev keeps her role as antagonizer through the book.
The Doorman — The Doorman is the main character’s dog, who is voiced through Ed’s imagination. The Doorman provides a back-and-forth inner monologue for Ed to work out his problems and gain clarity. Whether it was his choice or not, The Doorman is a supporter and informant character.
How do you write a good supporting character?
Writing good supporting characters for your book requires thinking of them as full, complex people. Here are some tips for writing compelling supporting characters:
1. Make their dialogue distinct from other characters.
Each character, even supporting characters, should have distinct ways of speaking. This can be based on their background, education, hometown, life experience, age, and personality. Take those factors into consideration when you craft your character’s voice. Are they snarky? Long-winded? What kind of vocabulary do they use? Do they speak to every character in the same tone, or do they shift based on their audience and environment? Do they speak with an accent, regional dialect, or a speech impediment?
Making distinct dialogue becomes more important as your character cast grows. It’s one of the most important tools you can use to help your readers keep up with who’s who.
2. Give them a distinct name.
Along with distinct dialogue, a name that stands out from other characters will help your readers to keep the characters straight in their heads as they read the book. I had two characters in one of my novels who had the same job, and both of their names began with a C. In a long book like that one, we’re introduced to very many characters. I changed one of their names for clarity’s sake, because it’s an easy way to help your reader along.
3. Make sure your characters want something.
If they don’t have a goal or agenda, supporting characters can easily become a plot device. Each character you include in a scene should want something out of it, big or small. If they’re important enough to have a name, they’re important enough to want something.
4. Put in the effort.
Writing a strong cast of supporting characters really comes down to giving them as much care and attention as we give our main characters. Supporting characters should have a backstory that makes sense for their current state of being, flaws, likes and dislikes, and character arcs of their own. At the very least, ask yourself these questions:
- What do they want?
- What’s stopping them from getting it?
- What will they do in response to the thing that’s stopping them from achieving their goal?
Supporting characters play an important role in any book. Without them, the world around our main characters would be drab, boring, and unexciting. A good character needs good characters to work with and against!
Make sure you’re giving just as much love to your supporting cast as you do when building your main character. Remember: If they’re important enough to be named, they’re important enough to want something. What do your characters want, and how are they going to go after it?