The Unlikely Character That Will Take Over Your Story

  

In every (good) story there is a character that sizzles and pops right off the page —despite all efforts by authors and editors to reel them in.

Ideally, this character  is the protagonist. Or, even more ideally, BOTH the protagonist and the antagonist.

However, there is another character that often sneaks in to upstage all others, Kanye-Westing the spotlight in every scene.

Who is this charismatic literary miscreant? The supporting character.

That’s right. Your side kick, love interest, mentor or shopping cart girl #2.

 

7 Reasons Supporting Characters Take Over The Story 

  • They are more eccentric
  • They get less space
  • They make a “louder” splash
  • Unusual appearance
  • Special talent, gift or power
  • Compelling flaw
  • Strong voice

Sometimes these characters are called minor or secondary characters. It’s probably just semantics, but I agree with those who believe the term “supporting” is more accurate.

“There are no minor characters. Just major characters who aren’t having their story told.” – Christopher Kokoski

All characters, however small their part in the story, should support the story, the protagonist and/or the antagonist.

It’s a subtle but significant shift. One that, on the page, can make the difference between compelling characters and those that fall flat.


The 2 Most Common Supporting Character Mistakes

The two most common – and polar opposite – problems with supporting characters are underwriting or overwriting.

Underwriting is when these characters are stale, cardboard – more prop then person. Overwriting is the topic of this post.

Overwriting is when a supporting character steals the show. Not every character deserves the Robert Jordan treatment. Not every character even needs a name, much less a fully formed backstory complete with the preferred brand of cat food for his sister’s pet cat Giggles (FYI, it’s Orijen – $100).

Above we listed a few likely reasons for overwriting. You may have noticed that they all had to do with character development and execution.

Overwriting, though, is a bit of a misnomer. Sometimes the problem isn’t an overwritten supporting character but an underwritten protagonist.

Quick, Kill the Messenger (or, solutions to the supporting character problem)

Here are suggestions on how to deal with a spotlight-stealing supporting character:

1. Scale back the character 

Make the character less cool, less compelling. I reccomend only using this strategy if the character is trivial to the story, i.e. the waitress, ticket booth operator, etc. If a character only exists to serve a small, throwaway role in one small scene, odds are they don’t need too much thought.

If a character shows up more than once or plays a pivotal role (which should be the case for 99.9% of characters), then you might want to consider other strategies.

2. Replace or Combine the supporting character 

Sometimes a character refuses to be stifled. You just can’t uncool that much coolness.

In this case, replacing might be the best option. Simply create a whole new character to take the first character’s place.

Hint: No need to waste a great character. Start a file. Save that character for another story. 

Another option is combining the character with another character. The limo driver is also the assasin. The more important the character to the story, the more compelling they can (and should) be.

3. Make the protagonist more compelling 

Perhaps the real issue is an underdeveloped protagonist. If so, focus on ramping up the protagonist’s compelling factor.

Give them a more unusual name, strength, flaw, obsession, eccentricity, backstory, physical deformity or goal.

Give them a stronger voice, attitude, perception and way of interpreting and responding to the world.

4. Make the supporting character the protagonist 

Finally, maybe you are telling the wrong story. Maybe the supporting character should usurp the story.

If it makes sense, trade the roles of the protagonist and supporting character. Give air time to the new (and likely  improved) protagonist. You can then rewrite the story through the experience of this new story lead.


Final Thought, Summary & Desperate Plea for Your Love

For me, a reminder is in order to balance this post. Crafting compelling characters is the goal. Develop each supporting character into a round, three-dimensional fictional person.  Just ensure that the protagonist and the antagonist are the most compelling people in your cast. Watson is awesome, but the story is about Sherlock Holmes.


Summary of Solutions

  1. Scale back the character
  2. Replace or combine the supporting character
  3. Make the protagonist more compelling
  4. Make the supporting character the protagonist


 

Christopher is off trying to make himself a worthy lead for his own life story. Keep up with his progress by joining his newsletter

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Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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Posted in screenwriting, writer, Writing
2 comments on “The Unlikely Character That Will Take Over Your Story
  1. […] After the simmering is complete, you probably have characters waiting to jump onto the page. Chris Winkle discusses choosing a viewpoint character, James M. Jackson tells how to deepen character, K.M. Weiland corrects the common writing mistake of having no conflict between characters, and Christopher Kokoski explains what to do when an unlikely character takes over your story. […]

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