Friday, May 16, 2014

Characters in a supporting role.

Not being a published author, I refrain from writing posts on how to write a successful story. However, as an avid reader for fifty plus years, I feel qualified to write about what makes a story stick with me like a hot bowl of oatmeal on a cold winter day.

Strong secondary characters form the foundational framework to support the main character during whatever trials and tribulations he/she must face to be successful. None of us go through life completely alone and without support. Even the lowly dandelion seed must rely on the support of the wind to carry it to its new destination or it would simply fall to the ground accomplishing nothing.

Supporting characters need to fulfill a variety of roles. They should be there to lift up the main character when he/she fails. An understanding mentor who can teach them what they can't learn on their own is sometimes needed. I always enjoy a character capable of providing some comic relief to overcome those parts of a story that can mire us in sorrow.

Typically, the main character is someone who does not want to do what's necessary and it's up to the secondary characters to push/pull or even trick him/her into action. They can consist of family, friends or just someone met along the way.

Of all the stories I've read, the ones with a strong cast of supporting characters are the most memorable. My favorite series of all time, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, has so many secondary characters, I lost count!

This is just my opinion, of course, but I think a well thought out cast of supporting characters will make any story more memorable.

Thanks for taking the time to read. As always, any comments or opinions are welcomed.


  1. Really depends upon the kind of story you want to tell. A lot of people tend to forget about one of the most important characters in any story. That is the narrator. It is easy to know and feel the narrator in a first person narrative, but when not in first person mode a lot of readers and even authors tend to forget the narrator even exists, and thus neglect the function of narration within the story as the primary voice of the story.

    That being said, I usually have primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary characters in a story. The further away from "primary" the more the characters become two dimensional to the point of almost charcoal sketch archetypes thrown out and quickly forgotten. Many don't even get official names being relegated to the role of "village child in blue shirt" or "doe eyed woman". Taking it further down the path you end up with "angry crowd" or "seething mass" at times.

    In my two novels self published so far I've assembled "Dramatis Personae" lists which I throw up on my website for reference as an Easter Egg for curious readers. Going back for a count, my first novel has 72 different named characters in the story. My second novel slims down the list to a mere 59 different named characters in the story. Many of those are of the tertiary to quaternary sketchy archetype variety. My secondary characters all have motives, desires, feelings, and methods as well as appearances defined through the story. My primary characters are hopefully the ones most relatable to the reader. In some ways they are more "bland" viewpoint characters which give the reader a point of accessibility into the story, but on the other hand they are the characters I know best as the author since I've spent the most time thinking about what makes them tick on an emotional and intellectual level.


  2. I make the lists as I introduce new characters in the story line so I can keep the spelling and function in the progressing story straight as I write. Many of the lesser characters tend to get expanded roles as I explore them in later works. This level of organization/world building comes in handy when writing a series in my estimation.

    I also like a particular technique I used of taking a minor tertiary sounding board character in my second book, and creating a key secondary character in my as yet unfinished third novel as a long distant descendant that looks back on the original character as a family legend which has shaped the outlook of his entire clan.

    This is another reason to keep your tertiary characters in mind when doing related subsequent works. Using a select few (even as points of story reference) helps to create a dynamic of connectivity between the works.

  3. My tool suite is as simple as Notepad (or Wordpad) for writing. I'll also use a word processor like Word or Open Office Writer, but I rarely use them for any advanced features beyond spellcheck outside of my day job (which consists of a lot of technical/process writing). Now for print pre-production and page layout I use Adobe InDesign. It gives a lot more granular control of page design than can be easily achieved using a word processor. This is one reason I generally save word processor files as formatting free .rtf files, and do all my page formatting in InDesign.

    As far as "self made tools" I'll just manually put together a rough timeline/outline of events leading up to the story open. I'll also put together a brief synopsis outlining major characters, secondary characters, and their personal influences/motivations. Part of this synopsis may be some "scene sketches" where I explore how these characters may interact with each other. Sometimes these sketches get used in the story and fleshed out, other times they are radically changed or outright dropped as writing the story progresses.

    I'll also tend to put together things like "technical specifications" for unique world building elements for my stories. An example of this is in my unfinished third book where I am mixing Steam Punk aesthetics with traditional fantasy. I've created a set of "War Golems" as primary engines of war on the battlefield, and defined their classes, elements of their designs, and their uses in contested Aether operations. Other world building elements will get defined in the document until I get a feel for how the setting will impact the characters.

    All of these tools are simply documents used for reference, and updated or ignored as the story progresses when writing. In the final analysis for me, no matter how "cool" or intricate the background or details are in my mind, story is ultimately about characters, what motivates and drives them, and how they interact with one another. If I know the characters well enough, then I can predict how any of them will react when presented with a situation confronting them. If a character doesn't manage to change and grow within a story, then I know they are a secondary or lesser character. If the course of events feeds who they become, then you know you have a primary character on your hands.

  4. Sometimes the supporting characters even 'steal the show' so to speak. They can be more interesting and real than the main characters.

  5. You have lots of good thoughts here. Need to keep it for future reference.