How to Write Effective Supporting Characters

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes a full panoply of supporting characters. There was Dr. Watson, the quintessential “sidekick,” to act as a sounding board; Scottish landlady Mrs. Hudson, to cook and clean and fuss over Holmes; Scotland Yard Inspector LeStrade, to provide a foil for Holmes’ intuitive brilliance, as well as access to official investigations; the Baker Street Irregulars, to ferret out information; and Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s politically powerful older brother, to provide financial and strategic support. Like Doyle’s, your cast of supporting characters should reflect what your protagonist needs.

Balancing Character Traits

An amateur sleuth needs a friend or relative with access to inside information—a police officer, a private investigator or a crime reporter will fit the bill. A character who’s arrogant and full of himself needs a character to keep him from taking himself too seriously, maybe an acerbic coworker or a mother. You might want to show a hardboiled police detective’s softer side by giving him kids or a pregnant wife.

The most important supporting character in many genres, though, is the sidekick. Virtually every mystery protagonist has one. Rex Stout’s obese, lazy, brilliant Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin—a slim, wisecracking ladies’ man. Carol O’Connell’s icy, statuesque, blonde Detective Kathy Mallory has garrulous, overweight, aging, alcoholic Detective Riker. Robert B. Parker’s literate, poetry-quoting Spenser has black, street-smart, tough-talking Hawk. Harlan Coben’s former basketball-star-turned-sports-agent, Myron Bolitar, has a rich, blond, preppy friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood, III.

See a pattern? It’s the old opposites attract. Mystery protagonists and their sidekicks are a study in contrasts. Sidekicks are the yin to the protagonists’ yang. The contrast puts the protagonists’ characteristics into relief. For instance, the thickheaded Watson makes Holmes look smarter.

The place to start in creating a sidekick is with the profile you developed of your sleuth, so think about what kind of opposites will work.

Tormenting Your hero

Every protagonist/mystery sleuth needs an adversary, too. This is not the villain, but a good-guy character who drives your sleuth nuts, pushes his buttons, torments him, puts obstacles in his path, and is generally a pain in the patoot. It might be an overprotective relative, or a know-it-all coworker. It might be a police officer or detective who “ain’t got no respect” for the protagonist. It might be a boss who’s a micromanager or a flirt.

For Sherlock Holmes, it’s Inspector LeStrade and his disdain for Holmes’ investigative techniques. In the same vein, Kathy Reichs’ forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan has a tormentor in the person of Montreal police sergeant Luc Claudel. Their sparring is an ongoing element in her books. In Monday Mourning, Brennan finds out Claudel is going to be working with her on the case. She describes him:

Though a good cop, Luc Claudel has the patience of a firecracker, the sensitivity of Vlad the Impaler, and a persistent skepticism as to the value of forensic anthropology.

Then she adds:

Snappy dresser, though.

Conflict is the spice that makes characters come alive, and an adversary can cause the protagonist all kinds of interesting problems and complicate your story by throwing up roadblocks to the investigation.

An adversary may simply be thickheaded—for example, a superior officer who remains stubbornly unconvinced and takes the protagonist off the case. Or an adversary may be deliberately obstructive. For example, a bureaucrat’s elected boss might quash an investigation that threatens political cronies, or a senior reporter may fail to pass along information because he doesn’t want a junior reporter to get the scoop.

In developing an adversary, remember it should be a character who’s positioned to thwart, annoy and generally get in your sleuth’s way. With an adversary in the story, the sleuth gets lots of opportunity to argue, struggle and in general show his mettle and ingenuity.

Fleshing out The supporting cast

A supporting character can be anyone in your sleuth’s life—a relative, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, a professional colleague; the local librarian, waitress, town mayor; even a pet pooch. A supporting character may get ensnared in the plot and land in moral peril, or even take a turn as a suspect. In a series, supporting characters return from book to book and can have ongoing stories of their own.

Supporting characters come with baggage, so pick yours carefully. If you give your protagonist young kids, you’ll have to deal with arranging for child care. A significant other? Be prepared to handle the inevitable attraction to that sexy suspect. A pet Saint Bernard? Beware, he’ll have to be walked. Twice a day.

Supporting characters give your character a life, but each one should also play a special role in the story. Supporting characters might start out as stereotypes: a devoted wife, a nagging mother-in-law, a bumbling assistant, a macho cop or a slimy lawyer. It’s OK to typecast supporting characters during the planning phase. When you get into the writing, if you want them to play bigger roles, you’ll want to push past the stereotype and flesh them out, turning them into complex characters who do things that surprise you—and, in turn, the reader.

As a general rule, remember: You don’t want supporting characters to hog the spotlight, but bland and uninteresting characters shouldn’t be clogging up your story, either.

Naming supporting characters

Give each supporting character a name to match the persona, and be careful to pick names that help the reader remember who’s who.

Nicknames are easy to remember, especially when they provide a snapshot reminder of the character’s personality (Spike, Godiva or Flash) or appearance (Red, Curly or Smokey). Throwing in some ethnicity makes a character’s name easy to remember, too (Zito, Sasha or Kwan). Avoid the dull and boring (Bob Miller) as well as the weirdly exotic (Dacron).

It’s not easy for readers to keep all your characters straight, so help them out. Don’t give a character two first names like William Thomas, Stanley Raymond or Susan Frances. Vary the number of syllables in character names—it’s harder to confuse a Jane with a Stephanie than it is to confuse a Bob with a Hank. Pick names that don’t sound alike or start with the same letter. If your protagonist’s sister is Leanna, don’t name her best friend Lillian or Dana.

Create a list of names that you consider “keepers,” and add to it whenever you find a new one you like.

Introducing minor characters

Minor characters should make an impression when they come on the scene, just not a big splash. Here’s an example from Devices and Desires by P.D. James. With a flash of description, action and dialogue, Manny Cummings makes his debut:

The door was already closing when he heard running footsteps and a cheerful shout, and Manny Cummings leapt in, just avoiding the bite of the closing steel. As always he seemed to whirl in a vortex of almost oppressive energy, too powerful to be contained by the lift’s four walls. He was brandishing a brown envelope. “Glad I caught you, Adam. It is Norfolk you’re escaping to, isn’t it? If the Norfolk CID do lay their hands on the Whistler, take a look at him for me, will you, check he isn’t our chap in Battersea.”

Is Manny tall or short? Fat or thin? Balding or sporting a crew cut? Who knows and who cares. It’s what he does that counts: He leaps into the elevator, arriving like a whirlwind, delivers three lines of dialogue with a hint of an Irish brogue, and gives the protagonist an all-important brown envelope that pushes the plot along.

A minor role is no place for a complex character. Don’t imbue one with a lot of mystery that your reader will expect you to explain. A name, a few quirky details, and a bit of action or dialogue are more effective than a long, drawn-out description.

Adding authenticity

Remember that the world of your novel will also be full of walk-on characters who provide texture and realism. Each one may also have some small role in facilitating the plot, but for the most part, walk-on characters are there to make scenes feel authentic. Your protagonist takes a stroll, the street needs pedestrians; she goes to the bank to withdraw money, the bank needs bank tellers and security guards; and so on with hotel clerks, waitresses, salesmen and all the rest.

When crafting your more important minor characters, don’t get carried away and forget that walk-ons should get no more than a sentence or two of introduction. They don’t need names, and a touch of description is plenty. Choose details that can be a kind of shorthand commentary on the neighborhood or context. Maybe the playground skateboarder is dressed in baggies and a Rasta hat. Or perhaps a PTA mother has a 4-carat rock on her finger.

Used in this way, walk-ons remain as much elements of setting as they are characters—and that setting will be a fitting backdrop to help both your protagonist and your more important supporting characters stand out.

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7 thoughts on “How to Write Effective Supporting Characters

  1. desawrites

    Big thanks to the author Hallie for such a concise, but surprisingly info-packed article on supporting characters. I especially enjoyed the sections on Names (come on! Is Dacron the most exotic name you could conjure at the moment? 😛 ) and Introducing Minor Characters.

    When you called out how the author had given us no physical description of Manny, I sort of jumped – in one of those ‘AHA! So that’s what he meant’ moments – because Stephen King has discussed how he avoids giving much in the way of physical description even for his main characters. Trying to be brave and use that advice (though not yet convinced I could make it work), then here you have helped prove his point for me, as though Manny is not described physically, I realized that I had nevertheless a clear picture of this guy in my mind as I read that brief passage.

    Would this image match the next reader’s? Probably not. And that is the beauty of what King was telling his fellow writers. Don’t do all the work for your readers, let them fill in such details and get the joy of flexing their own creative muscles.

    For the rest of this piece, it makes installing the right type of character in the right place and the right way very methodical – taking out a lot of guess work and worry about leaving gaping holes. Like putting together a child’s puzzle picture. Thanks so much!

    Saving this one to my favorites!

  2. Majestic0254

    This is a very good article on creating characteristics of the people being portrayed in our story.
    I have gained a lots of knowledge from this and really appreciate it, because now I know how
    far to go with the regular characters compared to the main character, not to focus all the
    attention on the regular characters . I know now how to give them all an image, the main
    character and the others. once again, Thanks for info.

  3. ChiTrader

    Good ideas, Hallie. Thanks for sharing. I worry that my lesser characters are a bit vanilla, but then, they live in rural Minnesota, which is rather vanilla to start with. Seriously, I do think they are all unique, if only in subtle ways.


  4. Carolyn

    The article made me rethink my minor characters such my sidekick to the protagonist and the person with inside information to the police. I had created talking heads with superficial lives. I needed to give them lives with backstory even if the story is not mentioned in the novel. Thanks for this article.

  5. MeggieRae

    This was a reminder to self that minor characters are supposed to maintain a very low profile, definately a reminder I needed. I have a habit of creating complete lives and personalities for minor characters as I would a main character. It can be a challege when I get to thinking about how they ALL have A story…they just aren’t THE story, and thats what I have to tell myself all the time to keep from writing a lot of side stories.

    1. kate

      This article helps me out a lot. Now I have to revise my minor characters storys. I just get carried away and want them to have a full life like my main folks.


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