Lessons in Storytelling from TV & Film: Supporting Characters #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Welcome to the fifth part of my series on storytelling, TV, and Film, part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop hosted by Raimey Gallant. The hop is a monthly event where authors share resources and lessons they’ve learned about writing. To browse other posts in the hop, click here:
ATB
Last time I wrote about setting, and before that plot, characters, and what first episodes of TV shows can teach us about writing awesome first chapters. These are fun posts to write, and not just because I get to binge watch shows on Netflix!*

*Netflix is becoming somewhat addictive, but less so since I gave up on Gilmore Girls!

In this post I’ll discuss supporting characters.

Author Toolbox Blog Hop Lessons from TV and Film Side Characters

When I wrote my previous post on characters I had main characters in mind. The traits mentioned in that post, including purpose and complexity, should also apply to supporting characters. Below I’ll discuss additional things to consider when writing them.

My victims (shows & films):

Tv & Movies Pt5 Writing and TV The Flash The Punisher Harry Potter OUAT Sherlock Merlin Fullmetal Alchemist.
The Flash, The Punisher, Harry Potter, Once Upon a Time, Sherlock, Merlin and Fullmetal Alchemist.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

The Flash: Give your supporting characters depth.

Iris West started off as a strong independent woman and journalist, but after she and Barry got together the writers struggled to give her a purpose beyond bland romantic interest and cheerleader. Even after she’s made leader of Team Flash in season 4 her role feels forced and some of her scenes are cringe-worthy. The character would’ve been stronger if she’d continued as a journalist with her own sub-plot, rather than being strongly linked to her husband.

Write supporting characters with depth, personality, and their own mini goals. They should have a purpose and shouldn’t exist purely as a love interest or cheerleader. Your MC’s romantic partner should help advance the plot, be more than a name and a face, and bring something unique to the table. If they don’t add anything to the story, develop them or cut them.

The Punisher: Supporting characters can be used to show different aspects of your MC.

Without supporting characters we’d get a limited view of the main character. If ‘The Punisher’ was told exclusively from Frank Castle’s point of view, we’d see nothing more than a soldier on a murder spree. Flashbacks with his family show a softer side of Frank: A father who witnessed the murder of the people he loved most seeking revenge on those who did it.

Frank with family
Can we really blame him?

We see the world through our MC’s eyes. By showing how they interact with others, those they love and hate, we learn more about them and get a broader view of them. Use supporting characters to reveal more about your main character and show different sides of them.

Harry Potter: Use supporting characters to influence or develop your main character.

Draco Malfoy is a minor antagonist in the first film who makes Harry angry enough to stand up to him, even if his rash behaviour might get him in trouble. When Draco makes fun of Neville and flies off with his Remembrall, Harry flies after him when Malfoy taunts him. Malfoy stirs up strong feelings in Harry, and through their interactions Harry develops confidence.

Draco is more than a straightforward bully. His character arc is developed, and he has a large following of those sympathetic with his circumstances. Even minor antagonists should be three-dimensional, as it makes the story as a whole stronger.

Write supporting characters who influence or develop your main character, whether that be in a positive or negative way. Make sure supporting characters are connected in some way to the main character’s journey, or your audience may wonder what the point of them is.

Once Upon a Time: Supporting characters should affect the plot.

Once Upon a Time has a huge cast, but even minor supporting characters affect the story. Rumplestiltskin’s wife Milah runs off with Captain Hook, so Rumple cuts off Hook’s hand and kills Milah in front of him. Hook then vows to spend the rest of his life looking for a way to kill Rumple for killing the woman he loved, and I had no idea who to cheer for because I adore them both. Without Milah there would be no conflict between these two characters.

Rumple kills Milah
Captain Hook is the reason I’m obsessed with pirates right now…

Regina’s first love Daniel also played an important part, despite only appearing in a few scenes. Their secret relationship was outed to Regina’s disapproving mother by Snow White, despite Regina telling Snow to keep it secret, and Regina’s mother murdered Daniel as a result. This made Regina hate Snow White and exact her revenge with the dark curse, a main plot point.

Write supporting characters who are important to the plot, create conflict, and influence your story. If you remove a character and the story remains the same, they aren’t needed!

Sherlock: Use contrast to create a varied and interesting cast of characters.

Sherlock is smart, arrogant, and has little consideration for, or understanding of, other people. John, in contrast, is more sensitive to others, brings Sherlock down to earth, and counteracts his reckless nature with his steady presence.

The differences between these characters keeps things interesting and creates conflict between them: Sherlock often runs off without John and takes him for granted. John takes precautions before he follows Sherlock into danger and tries to get him to eat and sleep regularly.

Write supporting characters with different perspectives to your main character to add variety to your story. It’ll keep things interesting and help move the story forward.

Merlin: Give your supporting characters defining characteristics.

Merlin has a variety of characters, and the show does well to distinguish between them. Gwen often puts her foot in her mouth and rambles to cover for herself when she realises. Lancelot is focused on honour, and is very respectful. Gwaine is a mischievous drunk who dislikes nobility.

Gwen meets Merlin
When Gwen first meets Merlin she tells him he doesn’t look strong, then rambles to cover it up in case he’s offended!

Bring your supporting characters to life with defining traits. They could have an accent, defining body language, or scars. Each character should be unique and easy to tell apart. 

Fullmetal Alchemist: Supporting characters can be used to reveal details.

Colonel Mustang is often used to reveal information to other characters, and by extension the audience. Whenever Mustang has a meeting with main character Ed, his subordinate, he updates him on the latest threats. The information is useful to know for the audience, and it doesn’t seem like an info-dump because the main character needs to know too.

Use supporting characters to convey important information to the reader, via dialogue with the main character or their actions.

So what have we learned about supporting characters?

  • They should have depth, including flaws. Beware the Mary Sue type character!

  • They can be used to reveal different aspects of your main character.

  • They should influence or help develop your main character.

  • They must be relevant to the plot and your main character’s journey.

  • We can use them to create a varied, interesting cast and create conflict.

  • They should be well-defined and stand out as individuals.

  • They can be used to reveal information or show themes.

You don’t need to name every single character, especially those who appear in one or two scenes. The security guard or the librarian will do fine if the character doesn’t have a major role!

Beware adding characters just to make up numbers. Your MC doesn’t need two best friends just because Harry Potter did. If they only have one friend, that’s fine. If they have lots of friends that’s fine too, so long as each one has personality and purpose.

Remember, supporting characters shouldn’t steal the thunder from your MC. If you find that happening too often whilst you write you might need to reconsider who your main character is!
scales divider copyThanks for reading!

Who’s your favourite supporting character from a TV show, book, or film? Has a character ever seemed like they have no purpose? Let me know in the comments!

29 comments

  1. “Write supporting characters with different perspectives to your main character to add variety to your story.” This point, when used, I think it can be so effective. I used this in my last book, which had two sisters as co-protagonists, and their views couldn’t have been more different. This point doesn’t play such a large part in my current book, though. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like an ” MC’s romantic partner should help advance the plot” because as you mention, characters in a story should have a purpose in being in the story whether it’s plot or character growth. Fantastic post today 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ahhh! I love, love, LOVE supporting characters, and all of these are such great points to creating strong ones! Even though they don’t play the same ‘big’ role as the MC they play just as an important part in rounding out and enriching stories. This is such a great post, thank you so much for sharing!! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love these examples! Poor Iris got caught in the show with a romantic subplot trap. When the two MCs aren’t together yet, there’s tension and viewers get tired of waiting forever for them to be together, but if the writers finally remove the obstacles and put them together, there’s no tension anymore! LOL. I liked your point “If you remove a character and the story stays the same, they aren’t needed!” That’s a great thing to keep in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great points here, Louise. Thanks so much for sharing them and offering clear examples. All characters need to matter to the story. I’ve shared the post online. Enjoy your summer!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh man, I totally agree! Thank you for sharing this post, and pointing out the major roles minor characters can play. In particular, I also had a hard time choosing between Hook and Rumple in Once Upon A Time – but it was easy to get mad at Milah! Great examples, with a very engaging message.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love these tips you give from tv shows! It’s definitely important for supporting characters to add something to the story. I’ve been working on revisions, and another character snuck her way in. She provides so much to the MC that I’m not sure how she managed to stay hidden for so long!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Another excellent post! I’m currently assessing a manuscript that perfectly illustrates your comments about not having too many characters – I stopped counting at 80 named characters, but I think the final count is over 100. Some are needed, sure. Most are not.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You put lot of thought in this one. The tips are great and you follow them with great explanations. I think though, that sometimes some characters may not affect the plot or the mc in any way, but give a boost to the overall of the story. Like someone who’s annoying, or funny, or some creature that keep showing up on unappropriate times. Just my thought, which is not popular, by the way..

    Liked by 1 person

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