Supporting Your Supporting Cast

By David E. Sharp

No director would ever cast me as Hamlet.

In my theatrical days, I played a multitude of characters. Some were friendly, and others were malicious. Some were courageous, and others were cowardly. Some were clever, but most were foolish. I wish some were ruggedly handsome, but the directors always cast other actors for those parts.

You May Not Know There Names, But You Have Seen Them Everywhere.

My roles did share one thing in common. None of their names appeared in the title of the show. That is because the story we were portraying was not about the characters played. And that was fine with me. I’m a character actor. I work better in the supporting cast than in a lead role. It’s not because I lacked the talent to play the lead. It’s because I excelled at playing against the lead. And I loved it! 

I would prefer playing a gravedigger who throws dirt at Hamlet than playing the tragic Dane himself. Supporting roles are where I made my best contributions to a fantastic story. They’re important!

As writers, we spend a lot of time developing our protagonists. And we should! Where would our story be without them? We must be careful, however, that we pay attention to our supporting cast. Even the most fascinating protagonist we could imagine will fall flat against a backdrop of dull cliches.

Whether you’re writing about a stalwart ally or a brief walk-on from an unnamed gardener, breathing a little life into supporting characters will enhance your story.

The purpose of supporting characters

Great supporting characters add depth. They should have a purpose in the narrative. (If they do not influence the story, leave them on the cutting room floor.) That purpose could be to offer guidance, rivalry, or motivation. A few other valuable purposes include: 


Supporting characters could act as a mirror, reflecting aspects of the protagonist. More often, they act as a funhouse mirror contrasting with some part of the protagonist you wish to highlight. Contrasting characters like this are known as foils. Consider how John Watson’s pragmatic nature underscores Sherlock Holmes’s genius and eccentricity. As supporting characters interact with the protagonist, readers will naturally draw comparisons. Clever writers should use this fact to their advantage. 


Shakespeare frequently used minor characters to divulge information that the main characters lacked to the audience. A couple of gossiping gravediggers could speak freely of matters that nobles caught in political webs would never utter. Or consider nobody acknowledged that an emperor parading about in his “new clothes” was naked until an unnamed child blurted it out. Supporting characters draw out themes and profound truths in ways protagonists cannot.


Supporting characters are great at generating momentum for the protagonist’s growth. Mentors showcase qualities their students may grow into as they advance through the story. Luke Skywalker shares many similarities with Obi-Wan in the later Star Wars movies that he lacked early on. His mentor’s confidence, focus, and determination are qualities he strives for throughout the story. Any character exhibiting qualities your protagonist needs to acquire can serve this purpose. And it works in reverse, too. As protagonists mature, they may surpass other characters they once regarded as peers.

After Henry V’s coronation, he tells the disreputable Falstaff, “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!” And that’s Shakespeare for, “Time to grow up, dude!” This line follows two plays wherein Prince Hal and Falstaff embarked upon every kind of rascalry they could. It demonstrates how far the protagonist has grown while his old friend stagnated.

All of these are great uses for supporting characters, and you can see how they bring depth to your protagonist and the story you’re trying to tell. A supporting cast has much to offer, but what do they need from you?

The proper care and feeding of supporting characters

A car won’t take you places if you don’t fuel it up. Plants won’t grow if you don’t water them. Your supporting characters need a little attention if you expect to reap their benefits. You don’t have to develop an elaborate history for every second guard to the left. Still, a few key aspects will go a long way to breathe life into your supporting cast.

Motivation is paramount. No character ever said, “I’m going to stroll into this room and contrast with that important guy!” Using a character as a foil may be your purpose, but it is not the character’s purpose. Even unnamed background people should offer a sense that they are living their own lives, pursuing their goals, and dealing with their own stuff. 

A supportive ally will feel more authentic if she occasionally has her own crap to deal with and doesn’t have time for the protagonist’s drama right now. A mentor’s life is more than just pouring into some chosen one. The first and best way to humanize your supporting cast is to let something other than the protagonist be the center of their lives.

What are their goals in the scene? What are their broader goals in the scope of their own lives? Where does the protagonist fit in their goals, and how does that affect where they work in the protagonist’s goals? These goals don’t have to be elaborate. They don’t have to intrude on the story in progress. But motivations are the simplest way to add authenticity to any character.

All characters are living their own stories. Every supporting character is the lead in another life. Their appearance in your narrative is where that life intersects with your story. Their story may be intricately intertwined with the one you’re telling, but it should look different from their lens. Les Misérables from the perspective of Éponine or Javert would look different from how we view it from Jean Valjean.

You don’t need to include the scenes of their life outside the narrative, but readers should have a sense that it exists. Where do they go when the ‘camera’ is not on them? Is your protagonist an essential character in their lives or just an extra in the background?

Play against the cliches. You don’t have to overdo it. Characters don’t have to be atypical in every possible way. But a little quirk here and there that breaks the usual tropes can add depth to any surface. Maybe your high-octane rockstar likes to knit in his spare time. Perhaps the suburban soccer mom has some secret tattoos and a little street cred.

And second-guard-to-the-left? Did you know he does stand-up comedy on the side? And he’s hilarious! Again, you don’t have to spend a hefty word count here. The goal is to avoid cardboard cutouts and cookie-cutter characters. And a little goes a long way.

How do you support your supporting cast?

For more tips, check out these resources:

Write Lively Side Characters

Good Supporting Characters

Unforgettable Supporting Characters

Published by Writing Heights Writing Bug

A blog by writers for everyone interested in books, reading, writing, and just about everything in between.

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