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
- Scale back the character
- Replace or combine the supporting character
- Make the protagonist more compelling
- Make the supporting character the protagonist