Getting the Most Out Of Your Supporting Cast
by J.R. Backlund
You’ve spent a lot of time developing your protagonist. She has a good backstory, motivations, internal conflicts, a favorite coffee creamer—everything she needs to be a compelling lead for your story. Now it’s time to make sure she’s surrounded by a great supporting cast. But don’t be misled by the word “supporting.” Sometimes, an ally’s most important job will be to challenge her.
As a crime writer, it’s inevitable that you’re going to put your protagonist in some tough situations. The decisions she makes about how to deal with those situations will either make or break your story. Many of those decisions will need to be exceptional, if not outright unbelievable.
Why would she pursue the killer on her own? Through the woods? At night? And without so much as bug spray to protect her, let alone something useful like a flashlight or a gun? Shouldn’t she just call the police and wait for them to arrive? Preferably in the safety of a large public area like a nearby grocery store or a strip mall?
It’s your job to answer these questions so they don’t linger in the readers’ minds. And your answers have to be good enough to allow them to suspend disbelief. Otherwise, that disbelief will be a roadblock for them.
Your protagonist is going to have to justify her decisions. There are two basic ways she can do this: she can explain her decisions to herself by thinking about them, or she can explain them to someone else through dialogue. Without a doubt, the second option is better than the first.
Your protagonist will spend an abundance of story time thinking about stuff. In fact, regardless of whether your story is told using a first person or a limited third person point of view (omniscient should be avoided in most cases), the reader will basically be living inside her head. Explanation through dialogue can be a welcome break. So who will she be explaining her decisions to?
One of the best uses of your supporting characters can be their ability to voice the concerns of your readers. Assuming you know ahead of time what questions they may have (and you should), your protagonist’s friends or allies can be the ones to ask them.
You’re going after him on your own? Are you crazy? You don’t even have bug spray!
Ultimately, whatever her justification is, it should be good enough to sway the reader, but it doesn’t have to change the mind of the supporting character. This can add a nice bit of conflict that further isolates your protagonist. One more device to raise the tension in the story.
For better or worse, supporting characters often resemble archetypes. Without intending to, I’ve been guilty of relying on three of them in particular: the mentor, the fan, and the sidekick/partner/best friend/love interest (yes, these can all be the same person). Each of these characters can question a different aspect of your protagonist’s decision-making process.
The mentor is good at questioning whether she may be abandoning some principle or lesson that he taught her in the past. You’re going after him on your own? I’ve told you a thousand times, always wait for backup!
The fan can give her a push when she might be reluctant. You’re not going after him? But we’re all counting on you to catch the bad guy!
And the sidekick/partner/best friend/ love interest can express the most concern for her personal safety. I can’t let you go in those woods alone. You don’t even have…
You get the idea. You’ve created a new world and populated it with interesting people. Maximize their utility. Let those characters who are closest to your protagonist challenge her. Not only will your readers sympathize, but the extra tension may make the story even more compelling.
While J. R. Backlund’s heart resides in North Carolina, where he was born, his parents transplanted him to the Sunshine State before he was old enough to put up a fight. Prior to writing his first novel, he studied journalism at the University of Florida, then took a thirteen-year detour in construction management before getting back to telling stories. He lives in Jacksonville with his wife and their furry children — they don’t like it when he calls them dogs.