Supporting characters, particularly the ones in our protagonist’s immediate circle, have a significant impact on the plot of a book and on our main character’s growth. Have you ever heard the saying, you are who you spend time with? This is true, and so it goes without saying that we need to know exactly who our protagonist spends most of their time with. Who are the supporting leads?
Just as we looked at making our protagonist three-dimensional, we need to ensure our supporting leads are three-dimensional. That being said, we don’t necessarily need to know as much about them as we do our protag, because we don’t ever get inside their head — supporting leads do not lend any insight into the point of view, so we don’t need to know those deep, dark intricacies like we do with our protag. What do we need to know? Let’s take a look at a character outline for supporting leads.
(There is a fillable version of my supporting character outline at the bottom of the post!)
Tip: When I’m filling out supporting character outlines, I always ask myself these questions before including a piece of information:
- Is this something my protagonist would know?
- Will this directly impact my protagonist?
- Will this directly impact the main plot?
If the answer to all of these questions is no, I don’t include that piece of information in the outline. This helps ensure that the point of view remains consistent (we’ll talk about point of view in a future post).
Remember, the things we include in a character outline are the things we (and our protagonist) know about them right out of the gate; before a single word of the manuscript is written. Just as we get to know people in real life, our protagonist may get to know our supporting leads better than the information in this outline.
The First Dimension
Just as we’d ask ourselves this of our protagonist, we must ask these questions of all supporting leads:
- Full Legal Name
- Preferred Name
- Birthdate (and age)
- Current Employment
- Past Employment
- Employment / Education Ambitions
The Second Dimension
- Eye Colour
- Hair Colour
- Sexual Orientation
- Birthmarks / Tattoos / Piercings
- Style of Dress
What does your character have to live with every day? Remember, these are ailments that would be known to your protagonist at some stage of the game:
- Diseases / Chronic Illnesses
- Fractures / Breaks (past and present)
Your supporting leads come from somewhere. Does the protagonist know their family? If so, a family tree is in order.
We know a supporting lead is friends with our protagonist, but how close are they? How did they meet? What is it about this supporting lead, in particular, that your protagonist is drawn to? This is a very important section of the supporting lead character outline; it’s essentially a description of why they belong on the page.
Anything relevant. Relationships play a significant role in shaping someone into who they are. Who’s impacted this supporting lead? If they have past relationships, why did they end? If they’re currently in a relationship, what is that relationship bringing to the supporting lead’s life? Does the supporting lead’s significant other have a relationship with our protagonist?
The Third Dimension
What makes this supporting lead unique, special? What is it about them, specifically, that readers will grow to love? Why does our protagonist love them? However our protagonist feels about them is how readers should feel about them.
Psychology / Personality
In the main character outline, we answered these questions honestly and without impediments. This time around, we need to answer these questions with our protagonist’s perspective in mind (remember, we want to stay consistent with our point of view).
This is the stuff, deep down, that makes us who we are. Some things you might consider:
- Introvert / Extrovert
- Optimist / Pessimist
- Romantic / Cynic
- Darkest Secret
- How They Respond to Love, Change, Anger, Power, Sorrow, etc.
- Moral Compass
- Propensity for Depression / Anxiety
- Sense of Humour
- Ultimate Goal
The Deep Stuff
This is the stuff that tends to make us uncomfortable when it comes up in everyday conversation; the stuff that feels so intimately personal, we only share it with those closest to us (like your protag!). What is this supporting lead’s…
- Religion / Faith
- Greatest Hope
- Personal Strength(s)
- Personal Weakness(es)
The Supporting Lead’s Journey
We outlined our protagonist’s journey, which should line up closely with the main plot. Our protagonist isn’t the only one going on this journey, though. Their closest friends and allies are going to be right there with them, so we need to ask the question… why? Is it simply that the best friend would do anything for our protag, or is there something deeper happening here? Perhaps their journey started out that way, and then they were suddenly on a journey of their own.
What is our supporting lead’s journey? How does it change, take shape, as our protagonist forages ahead? What is our supporting lead’s ultimate goal when the story starts, and how does this goal change as the plot unfolds?
Act I – Beginning
What happens that sets the supporting lead on the journey of the novel? What is their deciding factor that means they’ll go on this adventure with our protag? More than anything, what does the supporting lead want to achieve? These are the kinds of questions to ask when establishing Act I.
Act II – Middle
Your supporting lead has desires, dreams. Act II is the confrontation or conflict that forces your supporting lead to take a stance and/or make a change. What happens to complicate their happiness, ambition, love?
Act III – End
Do we see growth? Ideally by Act III, each character has learned something; made some kind of change for the better (or worse). How has the the supporting lead grown, and how can we see that growth?
There are so many factors that make a person who they are (many more factors than are explored here). What else might you consider when building your supporting lead(s)?
Header image by Lukas Blazek.