For me, rich stories involve a great deal of detail, forethought and most of all believable supporting characters. Focusing on the latter today, I’m always thinking about the characters I consider to be placed in the “support” role. Some are bras and some are jock straps (I’ll give you a second to consider that and all the nuances entailed, lol).
Sometimes, these characters can be glossed over, especially if they serve more as place holders than actual aids to the main protagonist(s) of the story. There are clichés (plucky sidekick or daft henchman) and we can often locate those with ease. The best, however, are those that actually play such a role that if removed, the story arc would suffer!
Where would Frodo be without Sam? What about Harry if any of the many supports he had were gone (not counting Hermione or Ron because frankly, they’re more quasi-protagonists than supporting)? There are countless other examples of this that I could go into but I think you get what I’m throwing at you.
The absolute best advice I’ve come across when it comes to writing and including supporting characters is that in those characters’ minds, they are not secondary. In other words, they have their own history, experiences, virtues and vices that make up their persona. All of these should be included and evident during their scene(s). Obviously, you will have stories where there are nameless, stand-ins who serve a broader role, especially if they make up the collective of a population, mob or army but those that actually speak and lend action to the story must be more.
Whenever writing these supporting characters, I always envision them having qualities both in physicality and personality that are unique to them. For example, I recently started the fourth novella of the Ravanguard series. The main protagonist is a woman who hires the service of a somewhat ruffian type who swears, loves to gamble, but hates to drink and has an extra pinky on his left hand, which has earned him the nickname of Two-Pink Simm. That’s the most basic description I can give (you won’t be seeing him in readable form for a few years. Sorry. I’m working on it) but it gives you a lot of information. The question automatically is: Why doesn’t he drink? What’s the story behind that? That’s a good question to ask and one that lends depth to him that may or may not be explored. It’s a wrinkle of character that in my mind needs to be there.
Supporting characters should also be voices of dissent, challenging the main protagonist from time to time when there’s other options not yet explored. No “yes men”! What’s their personal agenda? This is something that should be at the back of our minds when reading and coming across a portion of story where the supporting character says or does something that seems a method of contention. This doesn’t mean they are a rival/antagonist but an opposing voice.
Let’s consider our own lives. Do you have a friend (supporting characters are often friends, maybe an acquaintance) that you love and trust but they challenge your words or actions from time to time? If yes, then keep that person in your life! If you have one that is the opposite (remember what I said about the jock strap type), then don’t get too attached. I have a few friends who I know I can be honest with about all kinds of things and know that if they disagree or have another way of approaching a situation, it’s not because they want me to fail. They want me to succeed but not be hasty or irrational.
True support lends itself in beneficial ways that does not necessarily mean they benefit from the outcome. I hope this all comes through the way I intend. Stories are far more envisioned when the people whose point of views we, the readers, are denied but are ones we would love to peer into the minds of! (This is actually something I struggle with because I would love to write from the POV of some of my supporting characters from time to time.)
Call to Action: Find those supporters in your life and thank them! Go one step further and buy them a Starbucks gift card (I fully expect a full slew to be sent to me, ha!) and let them know you appreciate them.