No matter what genre you write in, or what kind of book you're planning, inevitably the story will touch more than just your protagonist and antagonist. These supporting characters are what breathe life and reality into an otherwise two-person, or even one-person tale. If your main characters are the skeleton of your story, then your supporting characters are the meat on those bones, fleshing out the story and making it believable.
"Supporting characters" refer to every other character in your book besides the main characters. It could be a travelling companion, the mayor of a city they're passing through on a long journey, a barkeep at a local bar, or even just somebody walking down the street who catches your main character's eye. They may not seem important, and most of them don't even have names, but there is no doubt, that if they weren't there, something would be missing from your story. Understanding who these characters are, and what role they play is paramount to good story telling.
The first group of supporting characters are those who, while not being a protagonist or antagonist, are almost as important. They travel with your main character, or work with your villains. They recur multiple times throughout your book, and almost always have a name. Description is almost certainly required for these characters.
These characters have big parts in the story. They turn the plot, introduce challenges or help overcome them. They are the Samwise Gamgee's (The Lord of the Rings) and Simkin's (The Dark Sword) of your story. The story isn't the same without these characters, and often the plot does not advance without their intervention. Put some thought into these, as often you will find them sneaking into your story at the most inopportune times to throw a wrench in your plans. Done right, these characters can be just as memorable, or even more so compared to your main characters.
Secondary characters have a strong influence on the book, but you might only see them once. Most still have names, but the work put into fleshing out their appearance and background may not be as significant. Often these secondary characters only have a single appearance in the book, but their part is noteworthy enough to justify putting the work into developing them.
Building up a secondary character ahead of an important scene can better immerse a reader in your story. A whisper of a name, perhaps some dialogue between other characters to introduce the secondary character. Whatever mechanism you use, you know that this character is important to the story, even if he or she doesn't have a title role.
This group can also include characters who are referenced by name or occupation multiple times throughout the story, but never actually make an appearance. In fantasy writing, this is often the case with deities and legendary characters. They may not appear in the book themselves, but their influence on the story is unmistakable.
A barkeep at a local tavern, some children playing in the street, nameless faceless creatures and people that die for their cause in an epic battle. These are the background characters of your story. Some stories have very few, or even no background characters. This is okay, but it takes more work, and more talent on the writers part to immerse the reader in the story. Other books have hundreds, or even thousands of background characters. This is okay too, as they rarely have names, and exist to add flavour and realism to an otherwise flat, and maybe even boring, backdrop.
Often, writers don't put much thought into background characters, deeming them unimportant, and unworthy of their time. But even if the character only warrants a very brief mention in the story, a proper description can help bring the story to life. Vivid backdrops are part of what makes a good story into a great story, and background characters are part of that backdrop.
What the background characters are doing, and how they react to situations can help set the tone of the story, and are a good mechanism to use to avoid "telling" and "show" the reader what is happening instead. Consider this scene:
Toby stepped through the bat-wing doors into the local tavern. The old barkeep stood at the counter with a dirty cloth, wiping smudges from beer steins, his bored expression accenting the wrinkles in his face. Music drifted through the air, coming from a piano at the far end of the room. At the piano sat a well-dressed young man, tapping away at the keys like he didn't have a care in the world. Several murmurs came up from the local patrons who picked away at their meals, but none looked up to see the new occupant of the bar.
If we change what the background characters are doing, we can change the scene significantly:
Toby stepped through the bat-wing doors into the local tavern. The barkeep rushed back and forth behind the bar, filling steins and handing them to patrons, collecting money, and conversing when he could. Music drifted through the air, a slow haunting tune played by a well-dressed young man at a piano on the far end of the room. His eyes were closed, and his delicate touch of the keys formed notes that had an almost tangible quality to them. Heads turned, and friendly greetings flew up from many of the people who sat devouring their meals and drinking heavily of fine ale.
Simply by changing what the background characters are doing, we can move a scene in a different direction. We could play with this until we got just the right feel for the scene, and many of these characters will never get another mention in the story. They may only be background characters, but putting some thought into them can make the difference between a good story, and a great one.
Putting it all Together
There is nothing easy about writing a great story. So many factors must come together to make it work, between the prose, the style, the genre, and the characters (to name but a few). Clearly, there is a lot to think about. But putting the thought into your various characters can bring the story to life. Know what roles your characters play, and fit them in appropriately. Understand that your characters' actions will affect the tone and flavour of a scene, there is more to your book than just your protagonist and antagonist, and don't ever underestimate the power of a well-placed background character.
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