Not Just a Side Dish: How to Create Supporting Roles in Fiction

Heather Griffin shares her tips on how to create supporting roles in fiction that come off as more than just a flavorless side dish. Rather, supporting roles can sometimes steal the show.
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"Every dinner needs a side dish, on a slightly smaller plate."

When you are having a meal in a Michelin 3-star restaurant, the side dish still plays a significant role in the whole meal. Even sometime the side dish would affect customers' evaluations. In every story, the main characters are the main dishes like Wagyu Beef or Matsutake, the supporting roles are the side dishes like salad. Sometimes, the side dish might be more impressive and outstanding than the main dish.

When creating a romance story, some writers, especially rookies, tend to pay more attention to design the main characters. They spend a lot of time considering the main characters. From the terms of physiology, sociology, and psychology, they aim to create a "perfect" main character. By contrast, when they create supporting roles, they just like making a salad with overnight cabbage. The flat supporting roles will make the whole story tasty like the flavorless salad.

(Exploring Star Wars and the Hero's Journey.)

I assume that you have heard about the Hero's Journey. In a hero's journey, he or she cannot achieve the gift of the Goddess without any tasks and trials. When the hero or heroine faces a challenge, the challenge might be launched by a supporting role—the enemy. To pass the test, the hero needs supporting roles, such as mentors and allies, to help. This concept indicates the importance of supporting roles.


But how to create a colorful supporting character? To create a vivid supporting character, the process is similar to designing a leading role. In Dreame Writing Courses, three basic dimensions are highlighted.

  1. Physiology. Including sex, age, appearance, habitual action, etc.
  2. Sociology. What should be considered in this term are class, occupation, home life, social circle, etc.
  3. Psychology. Including personal ambition, temperament, attitude, abilities, and so on. With this dimension, a character's personality will be formed.

To create a character properly needs practice, it is good to be mindful of who your characters are within these dimensions' context. You should clearly know how they will react to every situation, their behaviors should be well-founded in the contexts of physiology, sociology, and psychology. Otherwise, readers might think one character is flat or "out-of-character."

Especially when writing the supporting roles, the word counts for them are limited in most situations. Authors keen to set the suspense for main characters. At the very beginning stage, authors might provide the hero or heroine with two completely opposite characteristics in different dimensions (like she is poor but joins an upper-class institution). This setting would attract readers to expect the following story. In terms of the supporting characters, the author cannot use plenty of lines to explain the crack between these contexts. So when creating a supporting role, writers should make the person's physiological factors, social background, and personality mutually consistent.

Supporting roles are different from the main characters. When creating a supporting role, you should design the distinguishing feature. Meanwhile, planning a relationship between the supporting role and the leading roles.

1. Creating the distinguishing feature

As mentioned before, supporting characters do not feature as prominently as main characters do, so the writer is forced to develop them with a limited number of words. In limited word counts, you should enhance the character's personality from behavior and language. Habitual behavior, foibles, or pet phrases can serve to endear a character to readers. These small details can also reinforce the reader's impression of a character.

For example, if you want to create a supporting character who is rich but arrogant, when this rich man talks to the main character, he might have no eye contact with the hero and use overbearing words. In this way, you can show the man's distinguishing feature effectively.

2. Building a relationship between the supporting role and the leading roles

There are two kinds of relationships—unity relationships and hostility relationships. In a unity relationship, the supporting role's responsibility is a kind elder, a mentor, or a friend, who would always give a helping hand to our hero or heroine.

By contrast, in a hostility relationship, the supporting character must be an antagonist, the main character's worst enemy; a betrayer who betraying the protagonist and getting the protagonist into trouble; a clown, a comic character who causes problems for the leading roles.

Here is an example from one of the most famous novels, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling. In this story, Peter Pettigrew betrays the Potters, and Voldemort is the antagonist, the most powerful enemy that Harry will face. The Dursleys are certainly clowns. They mistreated Harry, but they were punished, and the punishment they received was dramatic and hilarious.

Harry Potter's world is magnificent; the story is pushed by a large number of roles. However, most of them are supporting roles, or let us call them the general supporting roles. They just promote the storyline in a certain area, they're like NPCs in a video game. Besides, some supporting roles are designed for story clues. These roles appear in the whole story, especially in an important plot, they could drive the protagonist to keep growing. Just think about Dumbledore.

Another fascinating thing about supporting characters is, some popular roles might have their derivative stories. It is a new trend in today's book industry. If one supporting role is outstanding, readers would be not satisfied with the finite lines in the original works. So many writers start to create "side dish" stories, to complete supporting roles and find the new possibility of plots.

"Do not ignore supporting roles." Every experienced editor and successful author would talk like this. For different authors, they would have different creative methods to create supporting roles. This process makes every story unique. But the mature authors' common ground is they always keep the design process logical; they always think of the characters as real people. Before the book is published to the public, you never know which character would be their favorite. A mature writer designs all the characters with deliberation. As a reader, we are lucky to experience the story with diverse angles.


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