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How to Manage Supporting Characters

five men jumping in the air

A supporting character is neither a main character like a protagonist or an antagonist or the victim in a mystery nor a minor walk-on character. They are the components that flesh out the story.

Wikipedia’s definition is a good place to start:

A supporting character is a character in a narrative that is not the focus of the primary storyline, but appears or is mentioned in the story enough to be more than just a minor character or a cameo appearance.


A supporting, or secondary, character reveals key details in the story, motivates the protagonist, obstructs or foils the protagonist, or helps define the story setting.

Secondary characters enrich your novel by adding details and creating problems for your main characters, both the protagonist, your detective, and the antagonist, your villain. Secondary characters also expand your novel by providing the reader with a window into the world of your novel.

Without supporting characters, your novel can feel flat. And the storyline can feel one-dimensional.

How to Create Supporting Characters That Add to Your Story

So, not enough secondary characters make your novel feel thin. And, too many, confuse your reader.

Too many secondary characters can interfere with the storyline by providing too many subplots. In your mystery, you want the focus to remain with the detective’s search for the truth by solving the puzzle.

Start With the Character’s Role in the Story

When you write your supporting character, the first question you want to ask is, What is their role in the story? It’s one of the first things to add in your character background.

A colorful character with no story purpose is just a colorful character. Brainstorm why you want the character in the story:

  • guide to the unfamiliar world of the victim
  • suspect for the crime
  • opponent intent on thwarting your sleuth’s life
  • love interest to distract your sleuth, or help with the investigation
  • reveal character traits for the protagonist (detective) or antagonist (villain)
  • minion of the villain, either knowing or unknowing, depending on the villain’s manipulative skills

Characters who distract your sleuth from their goal create story obstacles. When a character prevents your sleuth’s forward progress in the investigation, you create story tension. Tension keeps readers turning pages.

Focus on Suspects

As you line up suspects for your story, you may find you do not need many more supporting characters. In a mystery, suspects keep your sleuth occupied by supplying both clues and red herrings.

Each suspect had their own relationship with the victim. Character development for suspects includes backstory about their relationship with the victim. And you also want to know each suspect’s relationship to the other suspects.

Develop deep character backgrounds for each of the suspects. The details you create are fodder for scenes as the character interacts with other characters. The more details you have on hand for a character, the better you can pull them out to confound your sleuth.

Those details are the way to add personality. As your sleuth interacts with suspects, you drive the plot forward. Sometimes the suspects help point the sleuth toward solving the mystery, and sometimes their character traits hinder the investigation.

Strong suspects enliven your story. Write their details with conflict in mind. How will each suspect trip up your sleuth? At least once, each suspect should present an obstacle for your sleuth to overcome.

Bring out the details in dialogue and action to make each suspect distinct from the others. You want your reader to feel like the suspects are people they might know.

The Other Supporting Characters

Other supporting characters don’t require as much background work. You still want to give them enough detail to support their role in the story.

An opponent, whatever their specific details, needs motivation for obstructing your protagonist.

If you have a love interest, they require enough background for them to appeal to your detective’s personality.

Mentors and sidekicks need all the ways they support your sleuth. Concentrate on the aspects that make them different from your sleuth.

Secondary Characters Support Your Story

As you write, you bring your characters to life with the details you have created in the character background. Help your supporting characters move the story forward as they interact with your protagonist in the search for the villain.

The details you create make it easy for your reader to understand the characters as three-dimensional people. The support they give and the obstacles they create mini-arcs that hold reader’s interest.

Ready to write your mystery? Get the help you heed with the course designed just for mystery writers: Write A Killer Mystery

Photo by Husna Miskandar on Unsplash

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