Jun 21

Supporting Characters and Your Story

Every story has a least one supporting character.

According to Cynthia Lord, author of “Rules,” a Newberry Honor Book, “A secondary character has two jobs: to show us another side of the main character and to create tension and problems that will move the plot ahead.” (1)

To understand this, think of any story. Now imagine that story with just the main character.

Who would he talk to?

Yes, he could talk to himself, but that would get old fast.

How would we learn more about the character other than what he would tell us himself?

We wouldn’t.

Supporting characters are necessary to every story.

Using Supporting Characters to Learn More About the Protagonist

A movie I loved is Cast Away, the 2001 movie with Tom Hanks.

Hanks played Chuck Noland, a FedEx worker who gets stranded on a remote desert island. He’s stranded on this island for four years.

No other people are around.

So, the clever writer, William Broyles, Jr., created a supporting character for Chuck. A volleyball that washes up on shore.

Yes, a volleyball.

As time goes on, Chuck names the volleyball Wilson.

If not for Wilson, the viewer would know very little about Chuck and there wouldn’t be much of a story.

Chuck talks to Wilson, confides in Wilson, argues with Wilson, and even cares about Wilson.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s an amazing movie. One that proves even an inanimate object can be a powerful supporting character.

While Wilson showed us a lot about Chuck’s character, an inanimate object as a supporting character doesn’t really do much to move a story forward. And, it doesn’t have much ability to add tension or problems into the story.

In this movie, the elements and Chuck’s emotional state were the antagonists causing conflict.

Using Supporting Characters to Provide Conflict

Supporting characters can actually provide the conflict for the main character and drive the story forward.

I’m writing a sequel to my middle grade fantasy, Walking Through Walls, and it’s the supporting character who is adding a big serving of problems for the main character.

In the first book, the story was solely about the main character, Wang. It was about his struggle to get what he wanted. While the supporting character Chen was introduced, he didn’t have a significant role.

In Book Two, Chen is the source of the conflict and struggles the two friends go through to reach their goal.

In this new story, which I haven’t given a title yet, Chen is the one with a problem. His sister was abducted by evil warriors and he asks Wang’s help to get her back.

As the main character, Wang is learning his skills as an Eternal student while helping Chen. This all allows the reader to see more of Wang’s character and to connect with him.

The story is a fantasy action adventure, so along the way the two friends will encounter a number of obstacles on their journey to save Chen’s sister.

Using Supporting Characters to Provide Subplots

Sometimes, a story from Point A to Point B, may be a little boring or may just need a little something to spice it up.

According to New York Book Editors, “subplots add dimension to your story. They have the power to transform flat black-and-white stories into a living, breathing, prismatic experience.” (2)

Subplots can also help pace your story.

I’m using this strategy in a middle grade story I’m ghostwriting.

The main storyline is strong, but to carry its weight through 50,000 words, it may lose steam.

The solution is to have the supporting characters have their own little stories going on. While the main character is privy to everything that’s going on, these little diversions create reader engagement and help move the story forward.

Another benefit of subplots with supporting characters is that they can be in the forefront for a short while to liven things up, then lie low until needed again.

These subplots help the reader get better acquainted with the characters.

It’s important to remember, though, that when you create a subplot in a story, you need to have an arc for each subplot you create. You need to tie up any loose ends it creates. Think of it as a mini-story within the main story.

So, if you’re writing your first book, think about your supporting characters. How will they help liven your story up and engage the reader? How will they help move your story forward?

References:

(1) https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/great-characters-wilson-cast-away-5a6ff322139d

(2) https://nybookeditors.com/2017/11/the-importance-of-subplots/

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Sep 17

Secondary Characters – Are They Important?

Writing Fiction Before I get into whether secondary characters are important or not, what is a secondary character?

A secondary character is any character in the story aside from the protagonist (main character) and the antagonist (villain or force in opposition to the protagonist).

Just a side note here, an antagonist doesn’t have to be a character. It can be an internal emotional or mental problem. Or, it can be an external force, such as a category 4 hurricane that the protagonist must prepare for or fight to survive.

It’s important to mention also that there are two categories or ‘subclasses’ of secondary characters:

1. The supporting character.

A supporting character is a substantial part of your story. She or he is part of the protagonist’s life and is usually there throughout the story helping move the story forward.

An example of this is Chen from “Walking Through Walls”. Wang is the protagonist and Chen is his best friend. Wang bounces many of his problems off Chen and Chen advises him. Chen is the voice of reason and calm while Wang ‘wants what he wants’ and is impatient.

This friendship is an essential part of the story. It’s part of what makes Wang choose one course of action over another in the end.

Sometimes supporting characters can have their own subplot. Using “Walking Through Walls” again, Chen was chosen by his village to become an Eternal apprentice. His village was invaded by neighboring warriors and his younger sister was abducted.

Supporting characters can be a catalyst for the direction the story takes.

Chen’s backstory also plays a part in the direction Wang takes in his character arc.

Along with this, supporting characters are essential to a book series.

Think of just about any series on TV (old or new): The Big Bang Theory; Superman; NCIS; Castle; The X-Files; even the MythBusters. You expect to see the supporting cast. You’d be disappointed if you didn’t.

2. The minor character.

A minor character is someone who may make a brief appearance in the story or is there in the background throughout. They give the story more authenticity and dimension. There will most likely be various minor characters throughout a book.

For example, in “Walking Through Walls” Wang and Chen are in an apprenticeship with other students. These students help create a dimensional world for the story. But, while they exist and are mentioned here and there, they aren’t essential to the story.

A great example of a minor character is the taxi driver, Sylvester, from the 1947 movie, “The Bishop’s Wife”. Sylvester was only in a couple of scenes, but he was memorable while adding nothing more than humor to those particular scenes.

Summing it Up

Getting back to the title question of whether supporting characters are important to stories, they are. They are an essential part of every story.

Sources:
http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/fall10/kane_amanda/character_types.htm
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/how-to-write-effective-supporting-characters
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/what-is-a-minor-character-understanding-the-minor-characters-role

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