Friday, October 15, 2010

TLC for the Supporting Characters

The characters in our books and here I am not just talking of the protagonist and the antagonist, but  about every other character inhabiting our literary city (manuscript). Though the protagonist and the antagonist are more important than the rest of the ensemble cast, the supporting characters do  play  important roles in our books.

If a little TLC (Tender Loving Care, or shall I call it Tender Literary Care) is showered on the other characters the story  gets enriched and is all the better for it.

Many times I have noticed  in some books that the other characters are ignored, they are just props that silently appear on the stage and then do the disappearing act after their purpose is fulfilled. There is not much of a  role for them to play in the story. I agree that the story is predominantly about the Main Character, but is the MC living on an island, all alone. No. More often than not the MC lives in a world swamped with people. Some more closer to him/her  than  others. And these people have lives of their own.

 So isn’t it a writer’s duty to flesh out these supporting characters well. To breathe life into them. We can definitely give them  more prominent roles to play. There can be a couple of  sub plots racing alongside, or  better still intersecting the main plot with these supporting characters in the thick of things.

These characters can have their own goals and  problems to solve, their dreams and aspirations to be achieved. If these characters too grow like the Main Character by the end of the story, the story becomes full bodied with warm blood gushing in its veins.

The supporting characters’ back story can be revealed during their frequent interactions with the main character. Readers are  not just interested in following the MC,  they also  love to read about each and every character in the book. Sketchy characters with  no clue where they are going have a jarring effect. Then it becomes obvious that the writer has not paid attention, or is just not concerned about anyone except the MC.

Supporting  characters  who are  strong entities, who can stand  on their own, push the story even if the protagonist is not around in few scenes. If these characters are on the Antagonist’s side, they can intensify the Conflict. If they are on the Protagonist’s side they can assist in the Resolution.

I have seen that the books I have read and reread have strong supporting characters  and these characters  are not there just  for decoration.  Many times they overtake the protagonist with agendas of their own. The supporting characters  should not be treated as  puppets. They are capable of making decisions and taking actions without the protagonist’s consent. These strong  supporting characters make for a good read.

What about you all? Do you all pay equal attention to the ensemble cast? Do you all shower a little bit of TLC on the supporting characters? How do you all handle these characters? Please tell us. We would love to know and learn.


  1. What a lovely advice. I like all the tips. Thanks Rachna, for this wonderful post. I will be tweeting it so others too can learn.

  2. Great point! I think for me, in a weird way, being the game master of an RPG years ago comes in handy here. The players could just walk around in the world talking to anyone and everyone. It meant I had to have some sense of character and background for all those characters.

    For my writing now I try to do the same, because I do agree it makes for a richer world and a richer story.

  3. You're right. IF the supporting players are too flat, you can tell. Great reminder, and I love the "tender literary care" kind of TLC!

  4. This is anther stellar post Rachna! In fact I'm going to pull out my character sheet today and try and jot down goals for each of my non MCs. Thanx!

  5. Since I am starting a new book, this is a timely reminder. I have several supporting characters and I plan on giving them a life!

  6. I love this post, Rachna! "Planted," one-dimensional characters are annoying and actually slow the pace of a story. And I agree that readers want some depth and love to see parallel story lines/sub plots. Great reminder and advice. I've RT'ed on Twitter so others can see your comments as well!

    I actually do character profiles for ALL of my characters. Knowing their motivations and goals, their hopes, fears, and backstory helps you determine how they'll interact with the MC and helps shape scenes and plot. Plus, keeping profiles on each supporting character helps your second-tier characters from becoming too static/too generic.

  7. Seema, glad you liked the post.

    Marieke, I love a rich cast of supporting characters who have agendas of their own.

    Lydia..flat supporting characters really bug me and I lose interest in the story.

    Anne, I learned this as I was working on my current WIP and was developing the array of school teachers.

    Terri, I think its important that we should write down the list of supporting characters and their goals and motivations.

    Melissa...I like the idea of doing character profiles. You brought such a brilliant point to our notice that this will determine how they interact with the MC and help in shaping scenes and plot. Thanks for the RT.

  8. I agree Rachna. I CAN'T read a story with flat supporting characters. The book goes down, never to be picked up again.

    I like to interview my characters before I write. That way, I know them well and my readers will too. :)

  9. Love the picture! Great advice. I agree, great characters are a must.
    Have a lovely week,

  10. That's great advice. SC's are really important and should be given the TLC they need!
    I decided to do a 'tree' for my novel, the main character and all the branches that connected him to the other characters. In time, little bits of info were added on, until now, they all have important roles to play.
    My first attempt at a YA novel, some years ago, got the response that my characters were too 'cardboard'. I am forever striving to make them more rounded and three dimentional with a purpose!

  11. Great post! The "fleshing out" of my supporting cast happens during the revision stage for me. They are a bit, ahem, cardboard in a first draft. :)

  12. I know the antagonist in the piece I just finished needs work. He's a bit one-sided, and I need to flesh him out a lot more. Great post!

  13. Hi Rachna!

    Great post! Yes, I do shower all characters with equal strength of MC lovin. They are just as real and deserving as everyone else and can also make the story feel flat or real.

    I do reveal their emotions and heart through interaction of the MC like you said.

    There was a time (my practice novels) where I left the villain flat because of what s/he represented--lol. I'll go back and edit when I'm done with my WIPs.

    Thanks for the wonderful post!


  14. I agree. I just finished reading a book where the supporting characters barely even got a description. It made the read somewhat flat.

  15. You're absolutely right... I hate when secondary characters are just cardboard cutouts clearly designed for walk-on roles. If I'm reading a book, the way you'll convince me is on the strength of the story and characters as a whole. The secondaries should be there to build the story up, not sit there like puppets until their presence is convenient!