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Developing Meaningful Support Characters

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Centerfield97, Nov 15, 2013.

  1. Centerfield97

    Centerfield97 Troubadour

    Hey all,

    I've always had the horrible weakness of never really being able to create support characters that feel real or serve some sort of greater purpose. So, I bring to you all a couple of questions:

    1. When do you determine if you need a support character in a scene or not? How do you determine if a certain character needs a companion?

    2. How do you determine the purposes for a certain support character? Do you figure it out as you write, or do you create the character a specific way?

    3. How do you make your support characters feel real? Do you write scenes from their POV? Or do you just write out their personality and mannerisms?

    4. Do you have any helpful tips or tricks related to support characters? Have you read any useful articles about this topic?

    Feel free to ask your own questions about this topic, or add in anything you think I might have missed. This is definitely an aspect of my writing I would love to improve, and I'm sure there are others out there who would like to improve on this as well!
  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    This is kind of tough it depends on the specifics of the story and the scene. There should be a reason for a character to be in the same place as the main character. Your support characters have their own lives to live and unless there's a specific reason to be around your main character, even if it's just to hang out, they should be doing their own thing.

    Usually, I figure out who my characters are and as I write I figure out how they fit into the story. I make adjustments on the fly if I find I'm missing a certain character element in a story.

    Every side character has their own life and their own desires. They don't just hang around waiting for the main character to do something. Give your support characters lives to live and their own desires and that will give them more dimension. You don't have to give them a POV. For example. Bob the main character needs Jake to bail him out of jail. Jake tells him he can't because he's babysitting his niece and he's not about to drag her down to the jailhouse.

    see answer for 3
    Centerfield97 likes this.
  3. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Once a character's in a scene, I like what I call the "speed bump" principle to make sure everyone takes part in the fun:

    Assume that their talk and interaction with everyone else, as long as everyone's agreeing, goes so smoothly it goes by quickly. It's either over quickly, or at least there's no reason to keep the camera on it for long. It's only when they get to a disagreement that things take longer-- and those are the things that show us more about the characters, and of course are most fun to watch.

    ("Disagreement" or "conflict" isn't the whole set of options that can do this. It could also be planning or musing, when they're not sure what's ahead even if no two people take opposing sides in the plan. It could be teaching, romance, or just cooperating on something hard. As long as there's uncertainty in how it'll come out.)

    The way I see it, you don't "add" conflict and such things to a scene. You just have a full awareness of what's involved and who wants what, then let the scene run and fast-forward it until they get to the good stuff.
    Centerfield97 likes this.
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Maybe it would help to not think of them as support characters? The story isn't just about the MC, but the characters the MC encounters all have their own story. They're not told and they may not be as interesting or as relevant, but they all have their own stories. Every now and then their story intersects with the MC and they run in parallel for a while. They become support characters in the story of the MC and the MC becomes a support character i their story.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is: Don't add a character for the sake of being a support character, use the ones the MC meets along the way.

    It's okay to refer to them as support characters when discussing the story, but keep in mind they're their own characters with their own stories. At least, that's how I like to think about it in my story (which is my first main project so I really don't know if that's the best way of doing it, but it works for me).
    Centerfield97 likes this.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    My current WIP has four kids as center characters, two girls, two boys. In a sense, each girl is the support character to the other, and same for the boys. Once they're all thrown together, they have to learn to support each other, all four of them.

    Why four? I dunno. I started with "group of kids" and these four sort of stumbled out. Honestly, one of the guys teeters on the edge of being peripheral. The other three are pretty strong. I never decided they needed to "support" one another (the verb is somewhat problematic), but I did realize in order for them to pull off the main quest they needed one another. It was not much work to see what roles each would play (except for that boy). In general, I try to run characters out of the story. If the story seems to suffer, then I leave them in.

    How to flesh them out? That's easy, imo. They play off the lead. They irritate, inspire, moderate, arbitrate, or something, but they have to cause real emotional reactions from the lead. If they don't, if they are there only to flip a switch or add another body to the teeter-totter, then I cut them. That's really what's happening with that boy. I'm looking for the emotional reactions from the others. It's there, but I'm forcing it. But, every time I consider writing him out altogether, the plot starts to unravel. So he's still an authorial problem.

    In the novella I wrote I went through similar processes. The only way I resolved the character issues (primary or secondary) was to start writing and just see. Whole scenes got cut and characters with them. For me, anyway, that means writing an frightening amount of words that never see the light of day. I've never been guilty of efficiency.
  6. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

    How do I determine when I need a supporting cast? When I need the action to go in a certain way, and my character's normal thought process doesn't naturally allow it to happen.

    For example, I have two main characters that are married. They've been married for a while, and they know each other's flaws and thought patterns. They will circle around each other, just arguing, the entire narrative if I don't interrupt it with secondary characters. And as anyone who's been in a relationship knows, there are never just two people in one.

    I have to introduce family members into the blend, just "dropping in to check up on things" and then putting their two cents in as a way to motivate action in some cases. Even if the motivation is only to get away from meddling family members at first, it can change into actually doing what needs to be done narrative-wise.

    There are times when support characters are just background filler. For example if the main character is at a work related function, most of the characters they meet will be filler. It's important to know when to leave the background in the background and when to make it pop out. One good example of this would be just about any of the local PD folks in the Anita Blake series. They are cardboard cutout cops. They have families, and they sometimes have a working relationship with Anita, but most of the time they are filler. They aren't really real, if you know what I mean.

    For the times you do need the supporting/secondary characters to come alive, you need to understand what their basic want is and what their basic fear is. If you have those two things covered, it should be a bit easier to figure out how they behave. I have a secondary character who had childhood trauma from being buried under rubble from an explosion, and was terribly afraid of straight lines. He was absolutely convinced that if he was in a building with any straight lines, it would collapse. This led to all sorts of weird corollary beliefs, and to his greatest want: safety. Despite this strange belief system, he was part of the town's scenery and he was always there, so when he dies it is another thing that turns up the tension in the story at this particular point in the narrative. And it gets everyone gathered in one place to discuss plans on how to fix the weirdness that's going on.

    As far as writing advice goes, one of the greatest things I read is to not spend too much time with only one person in a scene. If they're alone for whatever reason, bathing/reading/relaxing, they need to be interrupted and quickly. And I can sort of see the validity of that view, because if too much time is spent on relaxing/solitary endeavors it can go stream of consciousness Virginia Woolfesque very easily. Which is great if that's what you intend, not so great if you're trying to write an action packed story.
  7. Shadowfirelance

    Shadowfirelance Scribe

    They need a support character if they cannot do something that they would need to do, for example; They need to cross a large chasm, so they need someone skilled in the way of climbing, or they need someone to use magic to get them across.

    They all have their own personalities, and their own ideals, and their own thoughts, they develop as the story demands, and as the main character interacts with them.
  8. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    It's a mixed bag really. Sometimes the story dictates. Others, I find the idea of a character perfect for some happening that a POV character is dealing with. I don't think I've ever thought about needing a companion, they seem to develop organically...friends, mentors (especially mentors). Since I write character driven stories, meaning the tale develops first from an idea of character, I build the cast from the types of characters I want to write about. Placing these cast members into conflict with one another will cause the lesser characters to "choose sides", if you will.
    One key bit of advice here... Don't have two characters filling the same story role. Any character you devote time to should bring something unique to the story, or at least to the major character they're affiliated with. If they don't, consider merging the two or cutting one out.

    The majority of the time, I have a specific plan for a character from inception. That, however, will often change as the story progresses. I allow myself to figure it out as I write, but I like to have a solid understanding of my character cast before I start writing anything.

    Penpilot already touched on one very important point....understanding that characters should have desires and motives of their own. These may or may not be aligned with the main character they're affiliated with. Heck, they might not have anything to do with them (could be a sub-plot). You may not show any of this in the actual writing, but if you take some time to understand their backgrounds and desires, that understanding will bleed into your writing. I use very detailed character sketches for any character that I consider tier 2 or above (tier 1 is an MC, tier 2 is support, tier 3 is backdrop characters).

    I do write support character POVs if the story calls for it, but not always. It really depends on what's going on in your tale. Currently, the solo project I'm working on has six POVs. Two of those are what I'd consider MCs. However, the POVs are all interesting enough on their own merit to tell some of the overall story from their perspective (I hope). Further, the POVs are very different from one another with a few binding commonalities.

    Well, as I spoke of above, try to write a little background story for each of them. You might be surprised at how much that can help them feel real, even if you don't directly mention anything from those writings in the story proper. Another thing that I think helps is to try and gain an understanding of character archetypes. Certain archetypes strongly resonate with readers. They can help to make a character identifiable and consistent. You can play around with archetypes, combining aspects or even subverting the expectations. My favorite book on Archetypes is called "45 Master Characters" by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It is exceedingly detailed and offers male and female archetypes as well as their subversions and supporting character types. I highly recommend this book. Also, our own administrator here Black Dragon recently published a book on character creation. It is entitled "The Mythic Guide to Characters" by Dr. Antonio Del Drago.
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2013

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