Making the secondary characters feel three-dimensional is a challenge that all writers face. In many books, only the main character is given life: all the other characters are just supporting players who facilitate the main character’s journey. None of them have more than one facet to their personalities, they merely perform roles: the gay best friend, the strict mom, the drunk ship captain, the surly healer, the cowardly mage. It’s hard, when space is limited, to give characters with limited “screen time” a well-rounded personality. Especially in cases when the book isn’t really an ensemble piece and, if we’re being honest, they do only exist to facilitate the protagonist.
But the catch is, the protagonist feels more well-rounded when the people around her feel more well-rounded. Three-dimensional characters help to create a three-dimensional immersive world, which helps to draw the reader in, which helps to make the reader care about the protagonist and the story.
Even a character that only exists for a paragraph has a whole hypothetical life that began before they intersected with your story and will (unless they appear only to die) continue after.
Let me put it this way: think about how people interrupt each other in books and movies, and how people interrupt each other in real life. In real life, there’s a moment where both people are talking, before one stops to let the other continue. In fiction, there’s often an awkward break.
“Where would you–”
“It doesn’t matter where we go.”
In good cinema or theater, the actor who is cut off will improvise a couple more words so that they can sound genuinely interrupted. If they just stop and the other person cuts in on cue, it doesn’t feel genuine.
Back to secondary characters…can you see where I’m going with this?
A character doesn’t have to be a POV character to display a complex personality. They don’t even have to have a single line. Just a touch of detail here and there will bring an NPC to life.
If your character wanders into a shop, the shopkeeper didn’t just spring into existence to fill their need. What are they doing when your character enters? Standing behind the counter idling until they’re needed? Or taking inventory, knitting, reading a book, lifting something heavy, arguing with a spouse…?
Fleshing out a minor character is as easy as giving them an adjective when you describe them (the mousy barmaid), and thinking about what they do before and after their brief moment on-screen. We don’t need to know what they had for breakfast, but it helps to know that YOU know.
In ensemble works, where there are several supporting characters with a lot of screen time, it’s actually harder, not easier, to give them each a personality. That’s because it’s more complicated. Their roles are more complicated. And yet, to keep the scenes moving forward, you don’t feel you have the time to dwell on them. Especially if you aren’t writing from their points of view.
Several years ago, I read a book a friend had written which I think handled this brilliantly, so his technique has become my advice.
This was a friend I knew very well. I knew a lot about his experiences, his opinions, and his past. So I was in a privileged position, reading his book, and discovering that it wasn’t that he’d put himself into his main character, as many writers do. He’d put himself into ALL his main characters. In this ensemble of five or six characters, all of them had some snips of his own background; some opinions I’d heard him opine; some passions he was passionate about. It made them ALL living, breathing characters.
I’m trying out this advice in my own novel-in-progress, as well. For example: My love-interest character, an astronaut, is explaining why he was drawn to the stars. Instead of spinning out some tale off the top of my head, I let him explain why I’m drawn to the stars. I’ll probably never get to go into space or be an astronaut (I don’t meet the height requirement, for starters), but my own passion sounds absolutely genuine in this character’s mouth, because it is real. I think my assistant was almost in tears when I read her the passage.
I’m not going to overdo it, of course. I’m not writing an autobiography split five ways. But where there are passions, or interests, or pasts, I’m picking out real threads to weave in among the fiction. It’s giving the fiction a tensibility and a pathos it might not otherwise have.
How do you flesh out your supporting characters?