Four Signs of a Great Supporting Character
Updated: Feb 21, 2021
Supporting characters are sometimes seen as a tool for the hero to accomplish their goals and nothing more. But, just like in real life, everyone else's lives don't revolve around one person. Everyone has their own unique dreams, goals, and abilities. A minor acquaintance in the story of your life is the main character in the story of their own life.
Here are four signs of a great and memorable supporting character:
1) They have their own arc
This one seems a little obvious, but you'd be surprised at how much it can be overlooked. A general rule is that the main character is the one who changes and develops the most throughout a story. It's a good rule to follow, but development is important for any character.
Samwise Gamgee from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is often brought up as one of the gold standards for a supporting character, and rightfully so. He starts the journey as a mild-mannered dreamer and finishes it a bold and brave hero. I've heard people say they would read an entire story with Sam as the main character. This is what I like to call the "spin-off" test: If you can picture one of your supporting characters as the main character, then they've been properly written.
Personally, my favorite supporting character is Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump. I'm actually going to use the movie version of him for this example, because I think he's utilized better in the film than in the novel. He starts off as a gruff, angry Army officer who believes it's his destiny to die on the battlefield (since his ancestors served and died in every major American war leading up to Vietnam). He resents Forrest for saving his life in the jungles of Vietnam, as he lost his legs, his dignity, and what should have been his heroic legacy. Lt. Dan planned on drinking himself to death, but Forrest's kindness and purity allows him to appreciate a new friendship, get right with God, and start life anew. While Forrest's character stays relatively steady throughout the story, Dan goes through a full-blown transformation. This level of character development (along with a brilliant performance by Gary Sinise) is why Lt. Dan sticks out as the most memorable side character in my mind.
2) The main plot could not happen without them
The supporting character should be treated as more than an accessory for the main character, but they also need to drive the plot forward in some way. Whether they help the main character toward their goals or act as a foil, supporting characters must have a good reason for being there.
I've had beta readers tell me that some of my side characters don't need to exist (When I say side characters, I'm not referring to nameless "extras" like a store clerk or a waiter, but to characters who are given lines and a full description). This is tough to hear and may sound harsh, because it's easy to get attached to the characters you create. But if they don't affect the main character's journey or the main plot, then they can be a distraction.
In my very first post on this blog, I talked a bit about S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. This is an example of a story where the inciting incident is caused by a supporting character. Ponyboy may be the main character, but it was Johnny Cade that killed one of the Socs and got the main plot rolling.
3) They have traits and skills the main character lacks
Wouldn't life be boring and unproductive if everyone was the same? Of course it would! We all have unique talents and gifts that allow us to contribute to society (and to each other's lives) in various ways. The same goes for characters in any story.
Take The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins for example. Katniss is tactical and calculating but also cold and jaded. Peeta is warm and optimistic but also naive. She keeps him grounded and safe. He keeps her from spiraling into hopelessness. The two compliment each other perfectly because of these differences.
Dr. Watson (from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series) is another commonly-cited side character. The Robin to Holmes's Batman, right? But he is so much more than a sidekick to the famous detective. He plays an essential role as a confidante, partner, and friend. While he is intelligent in his own right as a physician and strategist, he is humble and knows his skill-set is different from Sherlock's otherworldly deductive skills. "[Holmes] was a man of habits... and I had become one of them... a comrade... upon whose nerve he could place some reliance... a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him... If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his own flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance." (Adventure of the Creeping Man by Sir Arthur Doyle).
Watson may not have the same flashy wit as Holmes, but his traits and role are necessary to every case. This makes for an iconic supporting character.
4) They are exaggerated (but not too much!)
This one is a little tricky. Because the main character takes up the majority of the story, the supporting characters don't get as much time to shine. They have to make a lasting impression in a shorter amount of time, so their physical features, mannerisms, quirks, and personality need to jump off the page a little more. Not so much that you end up with full-on caricatures, but enough that they can stick in the reader's memory.
As far as my upcoming novel A Warrior Still, the early drafts received positive feedback concerning Shoji, the roommate and best friend of my main character. His spirited personality, sense of humor, and constant 80's movie references made him memorable to my beta readers. But he's also much more than the designated "funny guy." He's supportive, serious when he needs to be, helps drive the plot forward, and has his own goals throughout the story.
I don't bring this up to toot my own horn, but I do it to let you know what techniques have worked for me and how they've been received by some of my readers.
Who are some of your favorite supporting characters and why? Let me know in the comments!