How to Write Stellar Supporting Characters
A supporting character, or secondary character, is a person in your protagonist’s world that adds depth, conflict, and complexity to their journey. Think of characters like Han Solo in Star Wars, Annabeth and Grover in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, or The Darkling in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. Without them, the hero’s arc would be incomplete. Most stories have several essential secondary characters that serve different purposes.
While secondary characters need to be complex and fleshed out with desires, fears, and even a backstory of their own, there is one caveat: they must exist only in relation to the main character.
Let’s examine the four main purposes secondary characters serve: to support, oppose, challenge, or highlight your main character. This post will break down each of these purposes and help you create stellar supporting characters that serve a purpose.
Secondary characters support the main character
Every story’s hero has a guiding motivation driving the plot as they progress through challenges and grow as a character. A supportive secondary character can help the main character move forward through that journey.
For example, take Frodo Baggins’ friendship with Samwise Gamgee in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Imagine how different Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring would be without his trusted friend and companion, Sam, there to help him on the journey. From protecting Frodo from the conniving Gollum to sharing his last drops of water and carrying Frodo when he can’t make it any further, Sam stands by Frodo even when Frodo tells him to go home.
While Sam is a fully fleshed-out character with his own character traits, personality, and backstory, within the series, Sam’s purpose is to support Frodo.
Secondary characters challenge the main character
Another purpose secondary characters serve is to challenge the main character to grow and persist through their journey. Without challenges, your hero will not transform into the person they need to be!
Does your main character want the solo in the school musical? Maybe the school’s reigning diva lets it be known that she isn’t about to give up her crown to the protagonist. This secondary character is provoking your hero, challenging her to rise to the occasion and succeed despite those that stand in her way.
Let’s look at Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. When Haymitch first appears in the story, he doesn’t seem to be an asset to Katniss— if anything, he’s an antagonist:
I realize I detest Haymitch. No wonder the District 12 tributes never stand a chance. It isn’t just that we’ve been underfed and lack training. Some of our tributes have still been strong enough to make a go of it. But we rarely get sponsors and he’s a big part of the reason why. The rich people who back tributes– either because they’re betting on them or simply for the bragging rights of picking a winner– expect someone classier than Haymitch to deal with.
“So, you’re supposed to give us advice,” I say to Haymitch.
“Here’s some advice. Stay alive,” says Haymitch, and then bursts out laughing.
While Haymitch’s cruel joke at first seems more suited to a villain, his attitude provokes the underdog tributes into proving themselves:
“That’s very funny,” says Peeta. Suddenly he lashes out at the glass in Haymitch’s hand. It shatters on the floor, sending the bloodred liquid running toward the back of the train. “Only not to us.”
Haymitch considers this a moment, then punches Peeta in the jaw, knocking him from his chair. When he turns back to reach for the spirits, I drive my knife into the table between his hand and the bottle, barely missing his fingers. I brace myself to deflect his hit, but it doesn’t come. Instead he sits back and squints at us.
“Well, what’s this?” says Haymitch. “Did I actually get a pair of fighters this year?”
From their very first meeting, Haymitch challenges Katniss to grow into the victor she’s meant to be— in the Hunger Games and ultimately over the Capitol itself.
Secondary characters oppose the main character
A secondary character that opposes your hero is one that stands in the way of their goal. This is the antagonist. In the world of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron serves as the story’s primary antagonist, as he is the threat to all of Middle Earth. In The Hunger Games, the ultimate force opposing Katniss and her allies is the Capitol.
However, your hero likely encounters other minor antagonists throughout their journey before reaching their final showdown with the “Big Bad.” In The Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship fights orcs and other monsters during their quest. In The Hunger Games, Katniss faces many other tributes in her effort to survive the Games. These tributes are a deadly challenge to Katniss’ goal of being the ultimate winner of the Games. This opposition drives much of the conflict as Katniss and the other tributes face off in the arena.
Without the conflict of opposing Secondary characters, a story can quickly become static and dull. Your story needs a Secondary character who challenges your main character and enhances the plot, whether that challenge is good or bad.
Secondary characters highlight the main character
Secondary characters that highlight the main character are also known as foil characters. The purpose of the foil character is to draw attention to certain features of the protagonist. This is often done by having a secondary character who is the polar opposite of the main character in specific ways. If your main character is awkward and shy, her sidekick best friend might be bold to a fault and afraid of nothing. If the main character is reckless and throws caution to the wind, their cousin might be the voice of reason who pulls them back from reckless situations.
In Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story, the protagonist, Reza, is an Iranian boy trying to come to terms with his sexuality. Reza spends most of the novel trying to deny the fact that he has fallen in love with Art, an openly gay young man who is not only proud of who he is, but is also an outspoken activist for gay rights.
In contrast to Art, Reza lives in fear of his family finding out that he is in love with a boy, and he goes to all lengths to hide his sexuality to be accepted by his family and live up to their expectations. Art, on the other hand, embraces his sexuality and never hides who he is. Reza is fearful and lives in shame, while Art is bold, fearless, and proud. That Reza falls in love with a boy so different from himself only highlights Reza’s insecurity and how far he must come to accept himself and grow throughout the course of the novel.
A well-placed foil character helps the reader better understand the protagonist and makes for strong character development by highlighting the traits and flaws of the main character.
It’s time to create those stellar supporting characters
Now that you know why your story needs strong supporting characters and what purposes they serve, you can begin crafting your own stellar secondary characters so that your story has more complexity, conflict, and character growth. Start by taking these steps:
Identify the role or roles that each of your supporting characters plays in your story. Is your secondary character a supporting best friend who helps your hero reach their goal? Is there an opposing secondary character that is standing in the way of that goal, or a highlighting foil character that puts on display your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses?
If you can’t identify the role a secondary character is filling, you might have too many characters in your story. A character that isn’t supporting, opposing, challenging, or highlighting your protagonist can likely be edited out, or perhaps combined with another character. Remember, your main character is the center of your story’s universe. How does your supporting cast exist in relation to the hero?
Add some complexity by changing the roles of your secondary characters throughout the story. In the same way that your hero can grow and change over their arc, secondary characters may change from supporting your protagonist to opposing them, or vice versa. A character that acts as a foil to your hero can also challenge or oppose them as well.
With the right supporting characters, you can create an exciting, page-turning journey for your hero that your reader won’t be able to put down!