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How To Make Supporting Characters Come Alive

man dancing in street

Who Is In Your Story?

Supporting characters create a compelling backdrop to your protagonist’s story arc. He or she is necessary to the story because the character reveals key details, motivates the protagonist, foils the protagonist, or helps define the story’s setting.

Each supporting character requires a character arc, a strong point of view, and distinctive personality traits. Strong supporting characters grow and change in the story. Characters that readers recognize from their own life add dimension and reality to the story. Supporting characters must be dynamic and engaging to your reader. 

The Story Role of Secondary Characters

Supporting characters expand your story by interacting with your protagonist. In a mystery, supporting characters can be a sidekick, mentor, or love interest. These characters expand your reader’s understanding of your protagonist, highlighting his or her strengths and weaknesses. They show your reader how your main character thinks, feels, and reacts in a variety of situations. 

The role of the suspects is to create the fill out the puzzle pieces of the mystery. Each suspect, including the villain, had a unique relationship with the victim. As your sleuth interacts with the suspects, they find clues and red herrings as well as learning more about the victim’s relationships with other people.

The victim is the story fulcrum. Without the victim’s death, there would be no mystery. Knowing the connections your victim has with supporting characters, is key to building your mystery puzzle and tension to keep readers engaged.

Organize Your Characters

You need to keep track of supporting characters. Author Margaret Atwood creates a chart with birthdate and historical events (fictional or real) for each character. Creating a character bible will help you keep track of each character and their relationships in the story. 

Some authors use a traditional 3-ring binder, loose-leaf paper, and dividers with tabs. If you use this method, allocate one divider to each character, write their name on the tab and add a single leaf or several sheets of paper depending on whether it is a central character. Create each character background in handwritten notes, adding details later as needed, and keep the binder on your desk for quick reference as you are writing.

Another option is to create a similar file in writing software, like MS Word or Google Docs. Quickly access your characters by creating an index in Word or a Table of Contents in Docs.

Writing software like Scrivener, Ulysses, Plottr and others also have ways to create and store your list of characters. 

Rounding out character background adds dimension to your characters and to the story itself. So, you want details on all your characters. Every one. 

A character bible helps you avoid creating extra characters who share the same story role. You’ll help your reader focus on the story instead of being confused by too many characters. 

Essentials to Know About Secondary Characters 

Create three-dimensional secondary characters, just like your main characters. You’ll want to know how they interact with the world and other characters. Give them hobbies, histories, opinions, quirks, obsessions, and speech patterns unique to the character.  

Start by listing all your characters. You will spend most of your time working on the main characters, but make sure you include every character. This is helpful for minor characters who appear briefly several chapters apart. You’ll be able to reference their details as you write without trying to remember whether the scar was on the left or right temple.

Role in the Story 

The primary aspect of secondary characters is their role in the story. Context is how the character fits in the story. The character serves a role in moving the story forward. Context works in two ways: 

  • How the character relates to each of the other characters 
  • How they fit in the framework of the story 

Knowing each character’s context from the beginning will help you avoid some common character story malfunctions. Character context makes your story cohesive from start to finish. 

Habits and Mannerisms

Details like mannerisms and habits help readers connect with your character. Vivid and realistic behavior pulls your reader into the story. A shy character may look down at the ground or turn their head away when speaking. A good method for getting in touch with your character is to walk them through a typical day—work habits, meals, recreation, friends.

Also, list speech patterns, favorite sayings, or repeated phrases that reveal how they respond to events.

Interpersonal Relationships and Connections

How a character reacts to other characters reveals their personality. When they pat someone on the back or avoid them on the street, you give your reader clues about the relationship. For example, if your main character speaks kindly to their neighbor in person and then gossips viciously behind their back, it tells readers something about their trustworthiness.

List any relationships like: familial (uncle, parent, child, etc.), work connections, friends, and enemies. Know who supports them and who doesn’t. Use these details in dialogue and action to reveal your characters to your reader.

Conflict Responses

Know how your character normally responds to conflict. Your novel is built on conflict, and you’ll be throwing many plot elements to thwart your characters’ plans. Introduce your reader to the normal responses early on, then put your character in a situation where his normal response doesn’t work.

This works for antagonists, opponents, and even love interests as well as the protagonist. Spend time with this. Conflict keeps your readers reading.


Characters don’t enter your story as a blank slate. They filled their lives with large and small incidents that impact how they behave and react in the story. Create vivid and impactful backstories for your characters. Hint at previous events early in the story then expand on the impact later. Write more in your character bible than will be used in your novel. Knowing your character’s backstory gives you the rich details you can add to deepen readers’ interest and understanding.

Physical Details

Yes, each character has physical details. Although you want to skip the scene where the character looks in the mirror, you can reveal your protagonist’s physical details through responses to and with other characters. She may tower over another character, or the love interest may place his hand over her tiny brown hand.

In your character bible, list the physical details for every character, so you keep them straight as you write. In your novel, know the details and sprinkle them in rather than giving a long list.

Characters Who Support Your Story

When you detail supporting character characteristics, mannerisms, and attitude they become three-dimensional and human in your reader’s mind. The come alive. 

Knowing a character has red hair is less important than how that character works in your story. You can change a shy girl to an aggressive girl, and she may still have the same story role. As long as you know the context of a character you can play with traits and aspects, but their function in the story remains the same.

As your characters interact in your story, they expand your reader’s experience of the main characters and enliven your story. 

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Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

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