In this guide we are going to discover the quick and simple secret to making the supporting characters in your novels really POP. It’s vital that you learn to make your ‘guest’ cast interesting. They may be secondary to your protagonist and antagonist, but they are still a key to crafting dynamite books.
The Walk-On Waiter is a Person Too
There’s no reason to treat a walk-on as a second class character. As novelists (as in real life, unfortunately), we often skim over certain individuals. We have a scene—or SCENE—in mind that will illuminate or ennoble our MC, and so we tend to brush off any other characters that happen to be in that scene. AN EXAMPLE:
In your scene you are conveying vital information from—let’s say the wife—to her estranged husband. They are sitting in a fancy restaurant, pouring their hearts out, a cornucopia of emotion all over the fine linen tablecloth, and the waiter show up to offer the wine list. You have your MC brush him off with a wave. We don’t meet the waiter, or even see what he looks like. You do this to show the intense focus of you MC, to display the blatantly obvious fact that he is too absorbed with the MAIN STORY to be pestered by some trivial non-character like the waiter.
(Why then did you bother including the waiter? To remind us that the wife and estranged husband are not alone? You might’ve been better off having them cast furtive glances around, paranoid that someone is listening in. That at least would’ve added something to the scene: a sense of dramatic tension.)
This practice of overlooking minor characters is not conducive to the creation of a fully fleshed out world within your manuscript. You can do so much better. Here’s how:
Your Cashier is a Raging Alcoholic with a Bachelors Degree in Applied Science
Everyone in your book world (as in real life, apparently) is important. They all serve a purpose. It doesn’t matter if that purpose is diminutive. Details create the illusion of reality in your fiction.
You may not realize this, but that cashier you don’t even recall speaking to earlier today, was a real person, with real feelings and problems and passions and love and hatred and quirks and ambitions and sins and everything else you have in your life. You passed her right over, consumed by your own story. But what if you had taken a moment, just a few seconds, and paid attention to the details?
- You would have discovered that your cashier was a fully realized individual
- Her story is different than yours, but for the briefest of moments (scenes) your two tales wove together.
SUPPORTING CHARACTERS CAN ADD TO THE ILLUSION OF REALITY
Just as in real life, where you occasionally run into breathtakingly disruptive individuals, your books should boast seemingly minor but engaging characters. A PRETTY EXAMPLE:
Your wife and estranged husband characters are going at it, revealing vital nuggets of your plot. Readers are discovering some useful tidbit to the story.
But they are bored.
What you have is an info drop, a scene of expository dialogue dressed up as drama. So, in steps a waiter. Your estranged husband character brushes him off. But this waiter is no pushover. He won’t be waved aside: he demands attention, from both the husband and your readers. They look at him. Have to look at him. He has an odd feature (anything will work here, but in this case . . . let’s say his eyes are too close together, giving him a look of almost alien intelligence). This odd waiter has overheard their conversation, and, because he is a man of experience, (in addition to being an eavesdropper), he forcefully injects himself into the scene by telling them about his similar former quagmire, and how he solved it by going to see ‘a witch doctor down in Port-au-Prince, who placed a curse on my enemy—for a small fee’ he then grins in a sinister manner.
While your main characters are still a smidgen flabbergasted, the intrusive (and surprisingly useful) waiter then displays the gall to tell them which wine they should purchase. He turns and walks off.
BAM! In only a few well-crafted sentences, you have introduced a very minor character, quickly provided him with a relevant back story, and used him to convey—in an entertaining fashion–relevant information that will propel the story forward.
His role was small, but memorable and useful to the overall story arc.
The No. 1 Tip to Writing Unforgettable Supporting Characters
If you’ve read this far, then you have probably already deduced the Tip.
When you bring in a minor character, take a moment to observe the thread of your story and think about your guest character. Imagine (realize) that this character has a complete history apart from the main story. We are not in his story, but his story still clashes with ours. It must clash, if he is going to be memorable and useful. He brings:
- and annoyance with him.
He has a complete story, like any stranger you bump into in real life, and their stories often affect everyone they come into contact with.
They may be minor to the story, but nobody is minor in their own life. And when your minor character is encountering your main characters, his story is about him. To him, it is his scene; he is the most important person in that scene.
In real life, everyone you meet is wholly involved with their own story, and they bring their story to the table. Remember that when you go to write your supporting characters, and I promise you they will come alive and improve your manuscript.
Here’s a cool vid about supporting characters who stole the show. Check it out.
Keep writing, keep smiling. God bless!