So you’ve got a reasonably sized cast of supporting characters, but something still isn’t quite right. Below are three of the most common issues that tend to arise when dealing with supporting characters.
The Social Butterfly MC
Alice, the main character, is a friend to all living things. She is easy-going, kind, and everyone loves her. The entire supporting cast is on her side, and she’s got a team of close friends who are willing to bend over backwards to get her closer to the goal. Sounds nice, right?
The problem with this is when it’s too nice. It’s good to give your main character a support network. This allows other characters to pick up some of the slack so that Alice doesn’t need to be a hyper-powered juggernaut who can solve every problem on her own. But when everyone she meets is friendly to her things get boring. Most interesting interactions between characters arise when there’s some source of tension, even if it’s subtle.
Prickly relationships with supporting characters can raise the stakes. Not only does Alice have to fight the villain, but there are people routing for her to fail, people who aren’t willing to give her what she needs. and people who might turn on her if she isn’t careful. Consider what the supporting characters want from your MC, where they differ ideologically, and what their personal agendas are.
The Irrelevant MC
Essentially, Alice is the least interesting person in her own story.
This happens when the main character acts as a passive observer and audience surrogate while the supporting cast does interesting things around them. It’s a common problem in works that have a lot of strong, colorful secondary characters. When these characters become more interesting and generate more narrative possibilities, it often leads to them receiving an increasing amount of focus. Meanwhile the MC becomes less and less important.
It also happens in works with very elaborate or political plots. These often require a lot of moving parts, which means that the supporting characters tend to be fairly active. Couple that with the fact that it usually makes narrative sense for the MC to be in the dark about the upcoming twists, and it’s not uncommon for them to end up as a pawn rather than a player.
The best way to test for this is to see what happens when you remove the main character. If everything goes along in roughly the same manner or only differs at one or two major junctions (i.e. Alice is the reason why Lucy and Charlie meet in the first place, but the rest of the story follows the feud between the latter two while Alice pulls up a seat and makes some popcorn), odds are that something is amiss.
There are three ways of fixing this. One is to adjust the plot in order to give the MC something to do. Another is to fix the MC themself, to make them the sort of person who would be able to take a more active role in the story. The third is to choose a new MC—sometimes when you want to find a secondary character more interesting, it’s a sign that it’s time for a POV shift.
The Cardboard Cast
On the other side of the spectrum, the secondary characters are just floating names who pop in and out of the story to prove that the world isn’t totally empty. They do important stuff and contribute to the plot when necessary, but they never feel like characters in their own right. It’s also not uncommon for them to be forgotten about and to disappear from the story when they aren’t needed anymore. In other words, Alice is one of the only interesting characters in her world.
(Note that this is only a problem when it’s applied to almost all of the secondary characters. It’s not a problem if a few characters have bit parts. In fact, it’s expected.)
There is a balance between overdeveloped and underdeveloped supporting characters. If you can’t give all of the important/recurring ones their own personality and a concrete detail or two, it may be that you have too many of them. Sometimes it helps to condense multiple secondary characters into one with a slightly larger role.
One useful thing to keep in mind when finding a middle ground is the difference between what you know about the character and what appears on the page. The secondary characters that tend to capture readers’ imaginations are the ones who feel like they could have their own story off somewhere else. The reader doesn’t get their entire backstory, but they have a sense of history; they know other characters, allude to things that happened off the page, and have a few strong establishing details that suggest a personality, even if it doesn’t play out within the scope of the story.
Setting up strong secondary characters but holding back information keeps them from bogging down the story or overwhelming the MC while also leaving them with room to develop if you decide to give them a bigger role later on.
Writing Like a Boss: An Example of a Badass, Well-Written Secondary Character
Let’s take a look at Severus Snape (the one and only). He’s spot on in all three of these areas. First, his appearance in the story creates tension. He serves as a counterpoint to Harry’s many admirers, and while he actually ends up helping Harry on many occasions, his ongoing unfriendliness provides a source of conflict.
He never overshadows the rest of the story. When he finally does get characterization, it’s because his backstory has become important to what’s going on in the story and it still doesn’t take precedent over the main Harry-Voldemort plot. Rather, it serves to further it and to comment on it.
He was also created as a character with room to develop. By the end of the first book, we know that he has issues with Harry. We know that Dumbledore trusts him. And we know that he has a past with Harry’s father. He’s probably the most complex characters introduced in Sorcerer’s Stone, but very little of it happens on the page. We know exactly enough to suspect that there’s more to him. This makes him compelling, while also setting him up so that he is able to take on a larger role much later.