Wordy Wednesday: Strengthening Your Supporting Cast

I take my last final exam of sophomore year in two and a half weeks.

Between now and then, I have to attend fifteen classes (if you include my choir concert and non-“final” finals), do two astronomy projects, take two medieval lit quizzes, write a psych paper, and keep up with internship work. And attend orientation for Oxford. And finalize a lot of things for Ch1Con. And register for fall semester classes. And other stuff.

Basically, I keep being like, “Oh, look! Summer begins in two and a half weeks! IT’S SO CLOSE AND BEAUTIFUL!”

Then I remember everything I have to do before then, and I go into Panic Mode.

Meanwhile, in what little free time I haven’t spent watching Netflix keeping my brain from imploding this semester, I’ve been busy with novel revisions. One of the things I need to work on in this draft is keeping the characters other than my narrator/protagonist:

a) realistic, and

b) interesting

A character not being realistic and a character not being interesting are two different symptoms that ultimately boil down to the same problem: Right now, a lot of my supporting cast is there simply for the sake of advancing plot.

While it’s good, obviously, for your supporting cast to act in ways that move your story forward, it’s also important to remember they’re not plot devices–they’re characters.

So, some of the things I’m going to be doing in these revisions in an effort to strengthen my supporting cast.


Write Out Back Story

One of my characters right now is very well-developed in my mind. Unfortunately, since I know so much about him in my head, I didn’t realize how little of him is actually on the page. (That is, you know, until someone pointed it out THANK GOD).

This character’s in a lot of scenes, but I don’t reveal much about him within those. So, step one to fixing this problem: Open a new document, and actually write out the character’s back story. Talk about history, family, friends, enemies, quirks, goals, motivations, etc., etc. Then add some of this to the novel itself. Not enough to bog down the text, mind you. But enough to make the character three-dimensional.

I’ve found that writing things out rather than just letting them ruminate in my head helps me solidify and keep track of details, and this in turn makes it easier to figure out how to flesh out the character on the page.

Chart the Character Arc

I mentioned writing out a supporting character’s goals and motivations. It’s also helped me, with this particular character, to chart his arc for the novel.

A character arc follows the same basic model as a plot arc, with inciting incident, catalyst, rising action, climax, and falling action. Each character should have a primarily goal he’s going after in the novel, along with some smaller ones–just like the novel overall has both a central plot and subplots. When charting, focus the arc on the character’s primary goal and how he changes throughout the story in order to finally either reach it or fail to.

(On this topic, remember that a good supporting character isn’t static. He needs to develop and change due to the events of the novel. It isn’t necessary to outright state how the character has changed, but he does need to change.)

Read from the Supporting Character’s POV

This is a really good way of shifting from a supporting character acting simply as a plot device. Find all the scenes she’s in and read them back to back. What’s her motivation in each scene? What does she mean by each line and movement? How does her arc play out across the lot of them? Everything should be justifiable in the character’s mind. If she snaps at your narrator, it had better be because it affects not just your narrator’s arc, but hers as well.

It’s also important to know what each character’s doing when s/he’s not in a scene. Remember that each character’s life continues beyond the page.

Write from the Supporting Character’s POV

This is a great exercise for getting in a character’s head, if you don’t already know what her feelings and aspirations are really well. I’ve previously both rewritten scenes from other characters’ perspectives and written new scenes that take place off the official page of the novel, and am planning to do more of both as I work on this revision. Rewriting an already existing scene is better for in-the-moment stuff, and writing new scenes is better for learning bigger things about characters.


I’ve gotta go write that psych essay now, but if you want more writing-related posts, vote for the “writing process” option in the poll below.

86This picture is not weird in the least.

What are some of your tips for bringing your supporting cast to life? Do you ever struggle with making your secondary characters realistic, too?