A story isn’t complete without characters who populate and bring it to life. Many of these characters are mentioned in passing and then forgotten about, but the supporting characters and main characters are the core and focus. But with all these different personalities, it can be complicated to differentiate between each character and to understand their purpose in the plot.
In this post, I will be discussing the difference between main characters and supporting characters, which roles they play, and how to figure out how and which ones to write in your story.
- Main Characters Vs. Supporting Characters
- The Purposes of Different Characters
- How to Add Supporting Characters to Your Story
- Other Types of Supporting Characters
Main Characters Vs. Supporting Characters
Main characters and supporting characters are the backbone of any story and are the most dynamic, interesting, and detailed parts of the story. The differences between the two aren’t cut-and-dry and depend a lot on the story they are a part of. As a rough guide, here are the key differences:
Main characters should be the most developed, detailed, and well-rounded part of your entire story. Whether your novel has one main character or multiple, you want to keep the number as small as possible. This is because they require time, energy, and many pages of your book to create. With too many main characters, what happens is the characters fall flat, and the whole story crumbles.
A story can have an unimaginably complex world and plot, but without the characters to back it up, it will fall. The characters are what people get attached to, and without them, there’s nothing there. You can have a mediocre story, however, with the best, most well-rounded characters, people will care. They might be upset for these fantastic characters being given a poor plot, but you can plop the characters you create in many different worlds.
The main character is the protagonist, the one whose story we follow and who goes through a significant change. The protagonist isn’t always the hero, so it’s important to remember that the character we follow is the main character, not just the “good guy.”
Depending on who you ask, the antagonist, the one who is working against the protagonist, could also be considered a main character, along with the reflection, love interest, etc. However, to keep everything simple, I’ll categorize the protagonist and antagonist together as main characters and everyone else as supporting characters.
These characters do exactly what they sound like, support the main character(s).
There will typically be many more supporting characters than main characters because the supporting characters aren’t as detailed or dynamic. The supporting characters are more than extras and background characters and should go through some sort of change, albeit not as significant as the main character’s arc. It’s important to remember that these characters need to be fully formed people with goals, personalities, and basically all the main information characters receive.
Supporting characters make up a large part of a story, and so if you write a flat supporting character, a big part of your book will also be flat.
The Purpose of Different Characters
The protagonist is the hero of your story, and it’s important to note that hero doesn’t equal good. This is the person we as the readers follow and the one whose goals we become invested in. The protagonist should go through a major change by the end of the story and should be well thought out.
As an example, I will be using Harry Potter characters to help describe each role. In Harry Potter, the protagonist is, you guessed it, Harry Potter. He is the one whose story we follow. We see him go from an insecure outcast to the savior of the wizarding world.
The antagonist is opposite the protagonist. This person (or entity) actively seeks to sabotage the protagonist. The antagonist is such an essential character as this is where the majority of your story’s conflict will come from. Again, this character should be well thought out, and readers should gain insight into the antagonist’s goal and backstory (think: why they are the way they are).
In Harry Potter, Voldemort is the antagonist.
I also want to point out that a story will usually have multiple antagonists. But, the main antagonist is the one who shows up throughout the story. The Death Eaters were antagonists, Snape was an antagonist, but Voldemort was the ultimate antagonist in Harry Potter.
The reflection is usually a huge part of the story. This is the one your main character confides in and exclaims their thoughts to. The reflection is the protagonist’s best friend in a lot of stories, although it could be someone else. The primary purpose of the reflection is to allow the protagonist’s thoughts and feeling to be voiced. Instead of writing, “I felt like he hated me,” the reflection allows the writer to say, Peter walked by, and I turned to Becca and said, “I think he hates me.”
Harry Potter had many reflections, but two of the most significant were Ron and Hermione.
Not every story has or needs a love interest, but many do have them, and it’s important to know their purpose. Not only does the love interest add romance, but it also humanizes the protagonist. Love, lust, relationships, heartbreak, etc., are all things most of us understand and relate to, so giving those feelings to a character is a straight-forward way to add layers to your main characters.
Harry went through a few different love interests, but in the end, his love interest was Ginny.
Personally, the mentor is one of my favorite supporting characters to add to a story. This is someone who is wiser than the protagonist and has usually been down the same road as the main character. They give the protagonist advice, help guide them to their goal, share mistakes, and may even end up sacrificing themselves for the main character.
Dumbledore was Harry’s mentor in Harry Potter.
How to Add Supporting Characters to Your Story
Your story may or may not have all types of supporting characters, so it is essential to know the purpose and role of each type to know which will work in your story. For example, if your story is about a woman who is independent and likes being alone, and doesn’t care for relationships, adding a love interest might not be the best option.
Having a story bible is critical to writing dynamic, exciting characters and keeping track of each character’s role in your story plays. To learn more about story bibles and for a template, you can check out this post. Or, to learn more about writing dynamic characters, check out this post.
To start drafting supporting characters, brainstorm some ideas for each type (love interest, reflection, mentor) and try writing a paragraph or two with each. Decide which ones fit best with your story and construct the rest of the character’s personality and other details.
Before sorting out the supporting characters, it’s necessary to know as much as possible about your protagonist. What do they lack that another character could complete? What part of the plot does the protagonist need help with? How can each type of supporting character help the protagonist in their journey?
Other Types of Supporting Characters
- Family (parents, children, etc.)
- Friends (other than the reflection)
- Teachers, bosses, professors, and other people the protagonist regularly interacts with
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