There’s something to say about supporting characters, think about it as conversations. Yeah, conversations, you know? Like when you’re having problems and you go and ask someone else. They will reflect upon your problem, find their own take on it and offer it back for you to understand a different approach to it.
At their core, supporting characters do exactly this, they support your truth, they expand upon it, offer nuance and possibilities.
They’re the greatest opportunity a writer has to deepen the complexity, maturity and subliminal power of your story’s thematic premise. Just remember, the biggest the character’s role in the story, the more explicit its relationship with the theme should be.
Yet, any character you introduce is an opportunity to reflect upon the theme.
Let’s take for example the following theme.
“Being brave no matter what is the key to conquer fear”
We have our protagonist, they’re coward, right? That wound would place them as far from the thematic truth as possible (the farther the deeper the conflict).
So, which type of supporting characters could we use to expand upon the theme?
- A character who doesn’t experience fear for example, are they brave?
- A character who lost the battle against fear, what can they tell about the theme?
- A character who battles blindly because of fear, this one can also guide us to be precise in what we choose to battle.
As you can see, allowing each character to approach the subject from different angles gives you a plethora of material to play with in exploring every aspect of your theme.
Just keep your thematic question in mind before deciding upon them. In our case would be something like…
“Is bravery enough to conquer fear?”
Now, are all of your supporting characters answering this question in some way or another? Usually, some of them should argue for it, others should argue against it.
Simplifying the theme into a question gives you the possibility of using the supporting characters to reflect upon it, offering various answers.
One key aspect of supporting characters and their relation with the protagonist, stands from the inherent idea of the protagonist’s arc being the living proof of the thematic premise. Because of this, every other iteration of the truth, meaning all other reflections supporting characters offer, is considered to be a deviation in the protagonist’s path to the truth.
Now, about characterization, you really need to make sure your character’s personal mindsets are demonstrated in scene level, their actions influencing the plot. Pay attention to their scene motivation, their reason to be there (as characters), which stands from their desires.
You should at least give them desire and a plan of action for how they’re going to obtain their goals. And also keep in mind that, most of the time, their goals become serious resistance to the protagonist’s own goals.
Before you get all stressed about it (why should you, aren’t you a writer?) take into consideration that for the vast majority of supporting characters, you can get away with hitting just two major beats:
The setup; introduction of their lie/flaw/want (goal).
The payoff; a hint at their moment of truth.
In conclusion; at the deepest of story levels, the minor characters are there to provide thematic representation of your protagonist’s various fates.